Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
J. W. Denham, for all of his voiced concerns over the lack of moral responsibility and commitment he sees in the world, is not a likable or sympathetic character. It is not what he does that makes him so unlikable; it is what he does not do. Given numerous chances to help others out of their dilemmas, however trivial or ridiculous those troubles might seem, Denham either delegates responsibility to someone else or gives people money, along with lectures on the right thing to do. While worrying about the moral mess England is in, railing against its social injustices, and lamenting its downfall, Denham himself takes little risk in becoming involved. A confirmed bachelor and professional expatriate, Denham criticizes and worries from afar, both physically and emotionally. He does not like what he sees in the people around him, yet he will not do anything to change things.
With each character Denham meets in the course of his short stay in England, the reader sees an example of what he loathes. His father, Bert, is a retired printer, who spends his days in front of a snowy television screen watching double images of other people living. At night, in ritualistic fashion, he drinks at the pub with his friends. Denham, wanting to offer some sort of relief from the dulling, hypnotic forces of both television and alcohol, offers to take his father to Tokyo with him. Yet the offer is merely perfunctory, because he knows that his father will not accept.
Winter, Denham’s next needy person, is also a printer, who suffers from an evil greater than either television or alcohol. He is a cuckold, a victim of the ultimate social evil. Winter’s solution to his problem is not to fight for his wife or his honor, as Denham advises, but to quit his job and take a mistress, Imogen Everett. Winter asks for Denham’s assistance and his blessing to help further his new romance. Denham gives him neither but loans him some money to start a small business.
As for Imogen, Denham is at once attracted to and repelled by her. She mocks his sense of morality, leaving her husband and publicly announcing her sexual dissatisfaction with him (and with all men), taking up with Winter, offering to be Denham’s mistress, and finally soliciting men in the streets and cheating them. Yet, while she lacks what Denham calls “moral purpose,” she is a more honest person than Denham.
Mr. Raj, surely the most important character Denham meets, is Denham’s alter ego. While Denham cannot or will not get involved, Raj can do nothing else but get involved. In a series of tragically comic vignettes, Raj takes his stand against all the evil that Denham sees in the world: violence, adultery, promiscuity, prejudice, apathy, and general moral lassitude. Yet each time, Raj emerges from these misguided encounters seemingly unscathed emotionally and more committed than ever to the human race. Ironically, his very involvement with Denham’s world prompts him to beat one man for a woman’s honor, attempt adultery with Winter’s wife, kill Denham’s father with his Ceylonese cooking, and, finally, shoot himself in the head. He, too, uses Denham, but in a rather naive and altruistic way, and Denham is forced to see himself, or what he could be, in Raj’s reflection.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
J. W. Denham
J. W. Denham, the central character and narrator, a forty-year-old, well-to-do, upper-level manager for a British trading company, currently posted to Tokyo. Returning to England on one of his biennial four-month vacations, he finds himself bemused by the social and moral decline characteristic of life in Britain. He considers the deterioration of standards to be brought about by postwar democratic leveling to the lowest common denominator. On this visit to his aging father, now retired in a suburb of a Midlands city, he becomes even more aware of this omnipresent venality. At the local pub, the Black Swan, he observes that casual wife-swapping has become almost acceptable, the fling to which everyone is entitled; the only other recreations are tasteless, imported American television and drinking to the point of senselessness. He much prefers the elite life still available to commercial agents overseas.
Mr. Raj, a student from Ceylon whom Denham meets after he puts in a period as emergency representative for his firm there. Raj is charming, effusive, and insistent, a descendant of the stock oriental sidekick of British colonial fiction now become the colonial beneficiary of imperial enlightenment. Insinuating himself into Denham’s friendship, he proves masterful in handling some embarrassing situations once they return to England, where he is supposed to be researching a graduate thesis on interracial relations. He assumes, as a student of the British patriarchal system—the tradition of sweet reasonableness—that in Britain interracial harmony should prevail. He determines in his own small ways to promote that cause. One way in which he follows this course is by falling in love with and pursuing Alice Winter. Another is by moving in with Denham’s father, Bert, when Denham has to return to Tokyo. Raj determines to restore the elder Denham to vitality by cooking curries for him as only an Asian can. Unfortunately, as Arden’s cables to Denham eventually reveal, Raj’s cooking overwhelms Bert’s system; he dies of heart failure before Denham can get back. To compound the error, Raj, after defending his conduct to Denham, goes to see Alice, whose husband has just returned to her. Alice and her husband tumble into bed in an ecstasy of reunion. Raj, assuming that Alice is being assaulted, kills Winter with a pistol that he has stolen from Arden. Confronted by Denham, he kills himself just before the police arrive. As a result, Denham realizes that his own way of life is morally defective.
Ted Arden, the middle-aged owner of the Black Swan. Arden is the ideal publican, dispensing libations and personal philosophy in equal measure. An evening at the Black Swan normally includes the bestowing of gifts on Arden by appreciative customers returning from trips abroad. As his name indicates, he is descended from the family of William Shakespeare’s wife.
William Winter, or Winterbottom, a printer whom Denham meets at the Black Swan. Winter discloses that he is a victim of sexual liberation; his wife flagrantly makes a public cuckold out of him with an electrician. Denham urges him to retaliate by confronting her. Instead, Winter sets up an adulterous liaison of his own with Imogen Everett in London, where they expect Denham to subsidize them.
Everett, a poet and friend of Denham’s conventional suburban sister, Beryl. Because Denham refuses to underwrite the publication of his poems, he lampoons the visitor in a newspaper column. Later, he continues to ask Denham for support.
Imogen Everett, his daughter, a foulmouthed, tough-minded “modern” woman who becomes Winter’s mistress in London. Because Winter has trouble finding work there and Denham is reluctant to finance his unorthodox lifestyle, she decides to make money by running a confidence game. Setting up as a prostitute, she extracts the fee from her clients in advance, then slips out without performing the stipulated act.
Len, a racketeer of sorts whom Denham meets in Colombo and again in Tokyo. During the first encounter, Denham tells about losing money while in London to a woman running Imogen’s game. Len promises to avenge the deed. Before their next meeting, Denham’s Japanese mistress is attacked and nearly raped by a teenage gang from the American armed forces settlement at Washington Heights; she subsequently leaves him. Len reports that Denham’s swindling has been avenged but includes details that reveal the victim to be Imogen. She has been beaten, after which four teeth were extracted. She then returns to live with her father, repudiating Winter. Len justifies this action by asserting the necessity of balancing good and evil.
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