Robertson Davies Davies, (William) Robertson (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(William) Robertson Davies 1913–

(Also wrote under pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks) Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, and publisher.

An outstanding figure in Canadian letters, Davies satirizes Canadian provincialism and manners in his writings. Although he was a strong force in Canadian theater and journalism for many years, Davies's fame primarily rests on his novels. His Salterton trilogy (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties) is a caricature of a bourgeois Canadian university town. The Deptford trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders) which followed, focuses on the individual's need to accept the irrational, unconscious side of the self. In his recent novel, The Rebel Angels, Davies once again utilizes a university setting and academic characters to create a biting satire laced with his eclectic themes.

That Davies has been considerably influenced by the theories of Carl Jung is evident in the mystical, magical, and mythical themes which pervade his work. Because Davies's style reflects a wide range of intellectual interests and expertise, it is considered pedantic by some critics.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Arnold Edinborough

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marchbanks' Almanack, recorded once more by Samuel Marchbanks' devoted amanuensis, Robertson Davies, is just as funny, just as witty and just as wise as the Diary and the Table Talk were before.

Some readers may find their gorge rising at the names of Marchbanks' correspondents, others will find the plan of the book (an almanack filled out with health hints, meditations and so on) a little forced. But no reader can really argue with the spaciousness of mind, the wide range of human contact and the richness of general reading which distinguish this book. What other writer would on one page talk about the oiling of aspidistra leaves, the film Ivanhoe and the inscription on Strindberg's tomb?…

There is the delicious musing about a garter-belt found by Marchbanks as he shovels a load of sand out of his driveway: "Who, I wondered, could have discarded her garter-belt in a sand-pit, and why? Was I, all unwillingly, turning over the grave of some fleeting summer romance? And if so, was a sand pit not a somewhat gritty place for extramural amours?"

There is the incidental information that the handkerchief was invented by King Richard II, "the first man known to history to carry a piece of linen or silk, clean every day, for blowing his nose."…

To quote further would be to quote the whole book, for such gems occur on every page.

Marchbanks' Almanack is a tonic for the times, a draft of inventive purgation which could be taken at almost any season for that most persistent Canadian complaint, cultural constipation.

Arnold Edinborough, "Marchbanks Rides Again" (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 82, No. 11, November, 1967, p. 60.

Peter Baltensperger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The assertion of Magnus Eisengrim near the conclusion of The Manticore, "I am what I have made myself," and Liesl's postulate in the same chapter that "the modern hero is the man who conquers in the inner struggle" crystallize the theme which underlies all five novels of Robertson Davies from Tempest-Tost (1951) to The Manticore (1972). It is the theme of psychological growth toward wholeness which is based on the existential struggle carried on in the interior spaces of the mind and culminates in the fulfilment of the "yearning for greater enlightenment through mystical experience." (Tempest-Tost)

This theme runs through the five novels in a three-fold manner. In its most obvious form it serves as the framework in which the events and the characters evolve and progress within the boundaries of each novel. Whether the inner growth of the principal characters is painfully slow and barely recognizable as in the early novels, or far-reaching and symbolically significant as in the later ones, it is embodied in a specific way in each of the five books.

The series of novels viewed as a whole reflects the same theme in the progression from its embryonic expression in the form of unrest and dissatisfaction and the "yearning for greater fulfilment" through various stages of development toward levels of insight and into realms of wisdom and serenity.

Thirdly, as manifestations of a creative consciousness as it has found expression in and through language, the novels reflect the existential struggle and growth not only of their principal characters but also, and more importantly, of the author himself….

Robertson Davies has posited in his novels the patterns and the essences of his life in ways which enable the reader to take part actively in the developmental processes of the author's consciousness and to follow his quest toward the realms of fulfilment, self-realization, and mystical revelation. (p. 59)

The processes of psychological growth are not directed toward definite goals which can be attained and directly comprehended, but rather into higher, more complete and more spiritual realms of awareness and wisdom which can be glimpsed in moments of fulfilment and totality.

Nor is it a quest for happiness, because happiness is a state of repose and therefore stagnation. Self-realization is a dynamic process which for ever reaches beyond itself in often painful struggles with the confines of existence. None of the main characters in the five novels ever achieves happiness. Those among the secondary figures who appear outwardly happy and securely complete function as foils for contrast and often satire because they have ceased to become and therefore to be alive in the truest sense of the word….

[Davies's] characters are never capable of any significant kind of insight or growth. The novels therefore never conclude with a "happy ending" because at the conclusion of each book the main characters who are involved in the struggle, and who live because they grow, have not come to the end of their road but rather to a new plateau which points to a new height and not to itself.

As they in turn focus on different aspects of the theme of growth and at their conclusion point to the next step, to another Chinese box inside itself, to a new struggle and a new attainment, the novels form an ascending succession of stages representative of the many levels of individual strife. From one novel to the next, the main theme becomes more and more pronounced, its treatment more and more complex and refined, its boundaries more clearly defined and its components more sophisticated. It is in this respect that they reflect the psychological growth of the author. Attainments which are merely hinted at in the early novels are realized through later protagonists, and themes sketched out for the Salterton characters become fully developed in the lives of Dunstan Ramsay and David Staunton.

The basic movement in the psychological growth process is the progression from "confident innocence through the bitterness of experience toward the rueful wisdom of self-knowledge" (A Mixture of Frailties), in which the task of the seeker is to fuse the temporal with the eternal so as to posit spirit and acquire true individuality. The initial experience of a growing consciousness on its road toward self-realization is extemporalized in the conflicts arising from the restrictions and obligations caused by the parent-child relationship. Filial...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)

Walter E. Swayze

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Included [in One Half of Robertson Davies: Provocative Pronouncements on a Wide Range of Topics] are aspects of Davies' personal life and habits, beliefs and convictions, aims and intentions that had never been made clear through the person of Samuel Marchbanks, characters in the plays and novels, or the author's own published literary criticism. No totally unsuspected Robertson Davies steps out of these pages, however, and to suggest that these pieces weight equally with everything that he has published to date will arouse expectations that are not fulfilled.

Even stylistically there are few surprises. In the preface Davies says, "What is meant to be heard is necessarily more direct in expression, and perhaps more boldly coloured, than what is meant for the reader." But in the diversity of styles in which Davies has written for publication direct expression and bold colour have been constant features. Perhaps the most obvious difference between some of these speeches and published essays on similar topics are a less rigorous organization, and a more informal proportioning and linking of parts. Holding an audience with eye and voice, a speaker may indulge himself more readily with a telling personal anecdote, a lengthier plot summary, or more casual transitions than he would permit himself in writing for print.

Regardless of title and proposed distinctions, this collection justifies itself as an unusually varied, provocative, and impressive volume for readers…. For many readers these pieces will recall a bygone era. It is hard to...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] experience of reading One Half of Roberston Davies was enlightening—I was forced to realize how close, how astonishingly close, colossal vanity is to pristine innocence. (p. 24)

Of these 22 pieces perhaps five are worth preserving; the others, particularly a "satirical" poem on Hair, not to mention a coy, cute animal story written for children but included here because "several people" assured Davies it was really for adults, might have been tossed away without regret. The collection improves as it progresses, though this may be a consequence of Davies's choice of subject matter (Freud, Jung, Trollope, melodrama, ghost stories, Proust, etc.) rather than the actual quality of his...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Patricia Monk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Rebel Angels, morality and hilarity contribute in about equal parts to a story of theft and murder set in the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (Spook, to its familiars) on the campus of a large Canadian university. Careful readers of Davies will not be surprised by the simplicity of the story-line, the adept management of narrative structure, the lively characterisation, the re-emergence of familiar themes, the acerbic commentary on academic and other forms of life, and the flurry of esoteric information. (p. 578)

The narrative takes the form of two linked first-person accounts, one by Simon Darcourt and one by Maria Theotoky, alternating through the novel…. The distinction...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Sam Solecki

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Discussions of Davies' first three novels—the so-called Salterton trilogy—tend to emphasize his comic and satiric vision. By contrast, criticism and discussion of the Deptford trilogy—[Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders] …—have focussed on the psychological and religious dimensions of the novels and Davies' substantial debt to the thought of the Swiss analytical psychologist C. G. Jung. Filaments of continuity are evident between the two trilogies but there is no doubt that Davies' reputation as well as his almost unchallenged status as a serious thinker, sage or pundit … depends on the later body of work. In this case the common view is at least partly right since there's...

(The entire section is 1251 words.)

John Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the main, the heroes and heroines of Robertson Davies' novels, the characters through whom he chooses to tell his stories, are scholars. They are also pedants. They have many opinions, whereas scholars in the strict sense have only a few, closely related to their disciplines. In the course of their conversations and meditations. Davies' heroes and heroines express their opinions expansively and with wide-ranging references to history and literature. Furthermore, since the habit of forming opinions extends most easily into matters of human behavior (politics and propriety), Davies' opinionated scholars are inclined to priggishness. They editorialize extensively and gratuitously on hygiene, university budgets,...

(The entire section is 1448 words.)

John Kenneth Galbraith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Davies is a fine writer—deft, resourceful, diverse and, as noted, very funny. But his claim to distinction is his imagination, which he supports by an extraordinary range of wholly unpredictable information. (p. 7)

Fitzgerald, Hemingway and even Faulkner dealt with a world to which the reader feels some connection. Similarly located and circumstanced, one might see what they see. Davies deals with matters far beyond the experiences of his readers; yet, you find yourself taking his word for it, according him full faith and credit. Even if he invents the way a magician practices his art, you have to believe that the invention is at least the equal of the original.

The new novel,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Patricia Monk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Davies' work reveals a progressive attempt to define human identity in the fullest possible sense. In the development of his work from Shakespeare's Boy Actors to World of Wonders, he can be seen to examine the possibilities of role-playing, the second self, the autonomous personality of the artist, the Jungian self, the romance hero, and the Magian soul, and to assess each as a possible mythologem of the completed human identity. His exploration of these possibilities is rooted in his deep and long-lasting affinity with Jung, and, for the most part, is carried out within a frame of reference firmly based on Jung's ideas. Nevertheless, Davies eventually moves beyond his affinity with Jung to a more...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)