TO BE A PILGRIM is the second novel in a trilogy published in the early 1940’s (the other titles are HERSELF SURPRISED, 1941, and THE HORSE’S MOUTH, 1944). Each novel may be read by itself with satisfaction but is best read with its companions. In the trilogy, each novel is given over to a single character who tells his or her story. The basic scheme of the trilogy involves the conflict between the conservative attitude represented by the lawyer and landholder Tom Wilcher (TO BE A PILGRIM), and the liberal attitude represented by the painter Gulley Jimson (THE HORSE’S MOUTH). Joyce Cary also attempts to create a rich overlap of the three subjective worlds.
Tom Wilcher is an old man when he tells his story. Indeed, his novel is one of the supreme studies of old age. All of his life, he has obeyed the injunctions of duty. He has persevered as a lawyer, while his brother Edward enters, then abandons, politics for art and an expatriate life. He has maintained the family estate of Tolbrook and has never married. His narrative is a moving reflection upon England’s past traditions and is also a superb depiction of history as lived experience. In his recounting of his life, Tom Wilcher shows readers vividly the virtues of a concern with the past and with tradition. For him, the past is more alive than the present, and he manages to make it so for the reader. His concern with tradition is not mere stiff-legged conservatism but a vital need for a sense of continuity. Cary’s sympathetic portrait of Wilcher is set against his equally sympathetic portrait of the artist and image breaker Gulley Jimson in THE HORSE’S MOUTH.
Through the use of his narrator, Cary is able to develop the character of Tom Wilcher—a representative of a vanishing type of Englishman—with power, sympathy, and depth. In addition, the technique of the novel allows the author to explore many of the other characters fully. Ann comes to stand as the symbol for the modern, emancipated, scientific young woman. Robert represents the attempt of the new farmer to get back to the soil. The novel is told with a great deal of humor and insight and is an integral part of Cary’s full, varied, complex, interrelated fictional world.