A Quality of Mercy Themes
by Paul West

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The principal philosophical attitude of the novel seems to be the acceptance of inevitable suffering without the benefit of divine intervention. Camden’s coal-miner father defies God by trying to provide a different life for the boy. Camden fears for his father because of this defiance, not because of God but because of the inevitable laws of life: “I might have been able to do something about the sky but I knew I could not stop the ground.” The ground is the destructive mother, the coal-mined earth which engulfs those that emerge above it.

In a world in which God is dead, the primary drive is a search for meaning, often found temporarily in love; the primary threat, as Albert Camus perceived, is suicide. Thus, the novel is replete with attempted and successful suicides. That of Guppy is unsuccessful and comic: Guppy lacks a compliant female, so he lies on a pier at the edge of Italy’s Lake Como, hoping to drown as the tide gradually washes over him; after he is saved by the proffered address of a compliant local girl, she calls him a “poor fish.”

The fish, symbol of Christ, fertility, redemption (and here, also stupidity) ironically recurs throughout the novel. At the party, Brenda sees Huntley through her glass of gin as a golden fish that she is trying to grasp. After murdering her mother, she stands outside the Fishers’ window until dawn, which arrives colored salmon: “Dawn brings my last golden fish.” Her search for sexual fulfillment and fertility is never satisfied and ends tragically. That of the Fishers ends happily, as Wendy has become pregnant, and the Fishers cannot comprehend Brenda’s tragedy. In a world radically disjointed, a meaning for life emerges only fitfully and never universally.

In West’s novel, mercy’s quality is individual, occasional, temporary—not “the” generous mercy of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597)—and is demonstrated only through helping others to die, as Camden helps his wife to die by taking her to a film and helps his niece to die by shooting her in the back, rather than watch her die slowly through exhaustion and drowning.