A Prodigal Child

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

David Storey’s A Prodigal Child appears at first sight to be a work of minute realism of a familiar English kind, founded on a strong sense of locality and community, and having as its main theme the tensions created by one individual’s dissatisfaction with his family, expected role, and place in society. A narrow focus is evident from the opening few paragraphs, which describe the lie of the land round Stainforth estate and Spinney Moor, in a sense historically, for they explain how houses, mills, and factories come to be built, but in a sense timelessly, giving the impression that regardless of what men put on it, the land itself will always be the same. The characters’ strong feelings of continuity with their past is reasserted later on in the book in one incident when Margaret Spencer says that there has been a farm on the site of her father’s for a thousand years; even before that, she declares, Neolithic men hunted along the riverbank and left their arrowheads to be found in the earth. This eternal quality in the landscape, one may say, represents the book’s “immovable object.”

Against this, by all the laws of narrative probability, there ought to be set an “irresistible force,” and the obvious candidate to represent this must be young Bryan Morley, the boy who escapes physically from his environment, by being “adopted” and moving out of his family home, and shows moreover an instinctive urge from his earliest years to paint, to model in clay, and generally to seek expression outside the narrow limits of his society. Bryan, however, does not conform entirely to these expectations, a fact which may begin to make one doubt the truth of the first impression recorded above. He is born, for one thing, into a world of powerful if silent tensions. He himself, however, does not participate in or magnify these, as might have been expected; instead, he seems to slide through the difficulties of others as if they have no power over him. The clinging community of the traditional English provincial novel provokes him neither to submission nor overt rebellion. The reader realizes, slowly, that the interest of the novel must fall on him as individual and not as class symbol. Even more slowly, the reader may come to think that A Prodigal Child is not at its core a work of realism at all, but one which evolves a private symbolism out of almost-forgotten scraps of mythology.

This is not to say that close observation is not always present. Many of the characters in the book are highly inarticulate, partly through inadequacy, partly because silence is the convention of their class. Mr. Morley’s reaction to his son’s decision to leave home, for example, is to walk out and close the door; the family’s general misgivings about Mrs. Corrigan’s perhaps sexual hold over Bryan can be expressed only by Bryan’s brother, Alan, and then only childishly. In these circumstances, most of the work of the novel has to be done by detail and innuendo, with occasional moments of explanation from the author. This task, however, is done very skillfully, with an overpowering awareness in the end of the currents of feeling that run beneath silence and acquiescence. Mr. Morley, the reader is shown, has fought and lost a battle with his wife in the past; his sons seem doomed to repeat it. Because of this, many trivial incidents come to carry weight. The flourishing garden of a neighbor (a policeman, who earns more than Morley but works shorter hours) creates resentment and controversy. Morley could do as well, he thinks, if he had the time. The opinion of others is that the more time he had, the more he would waste. Anyway, Morley drinks and has not the responsibility to be a policeman. Morley’s reaction to these unvoiced challenges is to assert himself in other ways. When his younger son, Bryan, begins to develop his own urges, he, too, becomes a challenge, once more unvoiced but once more observed by all around.

A large part of Storey’s achievement in this novel is to deepen the emotions surrounding Bryan’s first tentative moves toward a breakout. Because marriage is recognized by all as an easy way to social advancement, Bryan’s growing friendship with his employer’s daughter is regarded with a general suspicion. This plays some part in the decision to allow Mr. Spencer’s sister, Mrs. Corrigan, to take Bryan away and educate him at her expense: It is better for a boy to work his way up than to marry his way up, and, furthermore, a mature married woman is safer (in Mrs. Morley’s eyes) than a young girl. Class tension, however, remains and is presented in repeated scenes: Mr. Morley unsure whether to shake hands or not, Bryan avoiding his mother out of embarrassment when out walking with Mrs. Corrigan, Mrs. Corrigan at one moment encouraging Bryan to be “sensitive” and the next reestablishing social distinctions by chiding him for being “familiar.” It is not too much to say that before long the novel has become a web of jealousies over sex, class, personal history, and family history, such that every impact on every filament of the web sets all the others twitching.

The most curious fact about A Prodigal Child, however, is that this social minuteness does not seem to be its main aim;...

(The entire section is 2154 words.)