Themes

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

The themes of The Radiant Way are a set of interrelated subjects which are both timeless in their significance and an outgrowth of the time period in which the story takes place.

On the highest level, we can see the concept of friendship, and more specifically the bonding of women...

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The themes of The Radiant Way are a set of interrelated subjects which are both timeless in their significance and an outgrowth of the time period in which the story takes place.

On the highest level, we can see the concept of friendship, and more specifically the bonding of women of widely different backgrounds and personalities, emerging as a theme. Liz, Esther, and Alix have met at Cambridge and remained friends for decades, and the basis for that friendship leads us to additional themes that develop gradually as the story progresses. The sharing of intellectual interests is a major focus of Drabble's novel. All three women allude to literature repeatedly as reflective of their personal struggles. Their basically left-of-center political orientation does not dominate their lives (as it does for Alix's husband, Brian, for example), nor does their feminism, but these are still determining factors in the way they see the world.

This brings us to the more time- and place-specific themes. The story is set in the 1980s and the early years of the Thatcher government. The themes of social change, the newly ascendant conservatism of the age, and technology are at the novel's center. Drabble examines the way people of that period dealt with these changes. For instance, Liz's ex-husband, Charles, partly because of his dysfunctional personality, is unable in his work to keep up with the technological changes of the period. Another theme is the issue of personal conflict with one's professional role. Alix, a teacher in a women's prison, is not supposed to associate on a friendship level with the inmates after they have been released. But this is partly what leads to tragic consequences for her student Jilly.

A theme less specific to time and place is that of dealing with an elderly parent and the conflict between a grown child's own life and her responsibility to the family. Liz is blamed by her sister for ignoring their ailing mother, Rita.

In all of the above, the emerging independence of women and their attempt to juggle traditional and new roles both come into play, though, as stated, Drabble does not heavily emphasize the feminist element. But by extension, this issue has a kind of antithetical corollary—that of feeling incomplete, or even like a failure, because of not having achieved enough on an intellectual, professional level. Esther, who has devoted her life to art history, is at one point mildly criticized for not having published books on her research.

A last theme may be hinted at by the very intellectuality that defines the principal characters. It is difficult to determine how much of the novel is intended to be satire or caricature. That the women, of a generation in the vanguard of feminism, have perhaps had to overstate their intellectual credentials to the outer world is understandable. Drabble is wholly sympathetic to them, though at the same time, she presents something in their bearing that is artificial, almost as a necessary component to success in the professional world.

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