The Purple Cloud Critical Essays

M. P. Shiel


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Purple Cloud has been hailed by some historians as a classic of science fiction and one of the most striking examples of the catastrophe story, but it makes more sense to consider it as a fantasy. It is, in fact, an allegory explicitly based on the Old Testament story of Job, which M. P. Shiel considered to be a literary masterpiece. Shiel complicates that story by combining it with the story of Adam and the Fall, bringing a new whole out of the intricately interwoven parts.

It is appropriate that Adam Jeffson (the surname is a contraction of “Jehovah’s son”) is tested more severely than was Job, because he is by no means as good a man as Job was. For the greater part of the book, he considers himself to be the instrument of the black, recruited to that cause by virtue of the murders committed in order to sustain his ambition. It should be remembered, though, that the Satan of Job is not cast as an enemy of God but as a collaborator, a skeptic who raises doubts as to the moral worth of humankind but who manifests no real enthusiasm for the prospect of failure.

The preacher who prophesies disaster as the inevitable consequence of the reckless pursuit of worldly ambition declares that the pole is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil forbidden to humans since the first Adam walked in Eden. Jeffson’s adventures after the destruction of his world indeed constitute a painful education in good and evil, but no matter how...

(The entire section is 524 words.)