Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
Hugely ambitious, a deliberate attempt to take on the mantle of D. H. Lawrence, David Storey’s somber third novel is highly schematic, too much of an illustration of its—or its hero’s—central thesis: “But just think what if this separate thing [the soul] were in one man, and the body, the acting part in another? What if these two qualities were typified ideally in two separate men? Then . . . just imagine the unholy encounter of two such people!” Though at times almost physically powerful, wonderfully observed in its social details, rich in visual imagery, and leavened by episodes of pure, grotesque black comedy, Radcliffe falters under the weight of so much significance and signification, teetering on the brink of melodrama.
The novel opens on a scene which will resonate throughout the novel: nine-year-old Leonard Radcliffe’s first encounter with Victor Tolson during his painful first day at the local council school. The boys’ eyes meet—Tolson’s liquid with a sense of betrayal—after Leonard has completed his humiliation at the hands of their teacher by answering effortlessly the questions that have stumped him. Thus, there is an element of threat in the friendship and protection which the huge, popular Tolson later extends to the pale misfit with a talent for drawing. The sense of betrayal resurfaces three years later, when Leonard wins a scholarship to the grammar school, and their paths diverge.
Leonard is by nature destined for a more graceful life than that bred in the council housing estate that sprawls around his family home, an island lost in a sea of red brick (an image for Leonard himself). This family home is also the Radcliffes’ ancestral home, and his father’s mission is to protect the Place from encroaching vulgarity. At the birth of his son, portentous noises are heard from deep within the decaying mansion—an episode which prepares for Leonard’s later vision of the house as “an extension of his own mind.” Leonard is from the first feeble and clumsy. Without the “compensation” of Tolson at grammar school, he withdraws into himself, his only real activity the production of the drawings he pins around his room. This isolated activity stops when Uncle Austen (who perhaps sees Leonard as an extension of himself) gets Leonard a job with Ewbank the contractor, and Leonard finds himself working with Tolson, now a muscular giant with a lumpish wife and two children.
These preliminary episodes of the novel over, there is a sense of inevitability in what follows: the psychological dice have been heavily weighted. Delegated to take care of the tents for a large showground in splendid countryside, the two men warily fence with each other and with (and through) Enid, a promiscuous adolescent from the nearby village, before uniting first in a symbolic ride on Tolson’s “throbbing” motorcycle and then in a homosexual embrace. Yet after the show is over, Tolson betrays Leonard with Enid, then vanishes, leaving him to face the sarcasms of Ewbank and his men, and the disgusting job of dismantling the latrines.
A second peak in the novel’s events occurs when Ewbank contracts to erect a beautiful marquee for a local society wedding. At lunchtime, all laugh when Leonard bites into a sandwich filled with human excrement. On the day the men dismantle the marquee, Ewbank suffers a betrayal of trust and expectations: The upper-class wedding guests have wrecked and soiled his marquee. The same day, Leonard suffers a parallel betrayal when Tolson reveals that it was he who dirtied the sandwich. As he does so, he smashes a hammer into Leonard’s face. The violence and the sense of mutual betrayal in their relationship is steadily increasing: In the schema of the novel, body and soul, it seems, are “absolute” and irreconcilable opposites that cannot harmoniously join.
Meanwhile, Leonard has been introduced by Tolson to stand-up comedian Denis Blakeley, later revealed as the would-be homosexual lover of his uncle, now insanely infatuated with Tolson. In his efforts to remove Leonard from the picture, Blakeley even throws him together with his daughter. Running parallel with these plot lines is the story of the Place itself. John (Leonard’s father) and Austen throw a grand party for the family. The party is utterly ruined, however, by Leonard’s increasingly strange behavior (unbefitting the only male heir of the Radcliffes) and by the death of an uninvited guest. The day’s desecration of the family is complete when that night Tolson rapes Leonard’s sister on the grounds of the Place.
Events now move swiftly to a close. Leonard deeply offends his religious aunt at a tea party with the Provost by describing Christ as a “magnificent corpse” whose divorcing of soul from body was a “curse” upon the West. Blakeley falls sick and calls Leonard to his side to pass on to him his grandiose ideas about religion and the decline of (proletarian) Western society, and to warn him about Tolson. Nevertheless, Leonard keeps an assignation with Tolson and is subjected to violent (oral) sexual assault in his ugly, over-furnished living room. He staggers home, but later that same night he returns to kill Tolson—with Tolson’s own hammer.
The distraught Blakeley “confesses” to Tolson’s murder, then slaughters his own family and himself. Leonard collapses and is hospitalized. On his release he turns to painting huge canvases of the landscape, Austen, demoniac figures, and himself. Yet just before the Tolson case is reopened, he burns them all. He confesses and at his trial is found guilty but insane. At the novel’s close he dies in a mental institution, his sister gives birth to a baby with Leonard’s eyes and Tolson’s body (a rare cliche, like the “throbbing” motorbike), his shattered father and family move to the south, and the Place is demolished to make way for more council houses.
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