A Quality of Mercy Summary
by Paul West

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A Quality of Mercy Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Paul West’s first novel begins with a family quarrel and ends with all members of the family dead (including the dog), three by murder, the last by suicide. Yet the dominant tone of the novel is not morbid, but comic. The entire present action occurs in a Connecticut hamlet distinguished mostly by its lack of eventfulness. This novel’s three primary characters—Camden, Brenda, and Merula Smeaton—are not only in isolation but also in retirement, from civilization, from work, from life.

Each Smeaton is not only well beyond maturity but also significantly beyond hope: bitter at or resigned to the ways in which existence has failed. A major part of the novel’s development works backward to explain each failure; suspense and drama are achieved by the introduction of the young honeymooners, the Fishers, into this environment of decay.

At the root of the decay of each Smeaton is loss of, or lack of, love. In search of some version of love in a New York hotel, Brenda Smeaton had “strutted into the bar and at twenty-seven years clumsily and vainly twitched her eyelids at the barflies and at the itinerants she saw through the plate-glass wall.” Having failed to connect sexually at twenty-seven, Brenda at forty-seven still searches for love, a meaning to life, and men; she fastens, temporarily, on Huntley Fisher. Brenda’s failure is the most poignant, the most bitter, but the reader learns that others have contributed to it. Her mother spent her twenties involved in a scandalous love affair with a musical genius in an Italian villa. Abandoned by him, she fled to marriage and a religious puritanism that excised romance and sexuality.

Camden’s failure in love is the most complex and most critical. It is traced both in the chapters that recount the action in the present time of the novel and in the alternating chapters that recount his earlier life, each episode framed by the poignant and inevitable intermingling of death with sex. For example, while recuperating in an Italian hospital from his war wounds, Camden falls in love with his nurse, Linda Panton. Once back in England, he abandons her until she writes that she is pregnant. He reluctantly marries her, then falls in love with her. She turns out, however, to be terminally ill rather than pregnant. Their last weeks reiterate the novel’s tone of inevitable disaster, of bittersweet pleasure: “I noted the irony . ....

(The entire section is 597 words.)