Robertson Davies Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What role does Jungian theory play in Robertson Davies’ novels, particularly the concept of archetypes (ideas or patterns of thought derived from the collective experience of the human species and inherited by the individual)?

Davies began his writing career as a journalist. To what degree can a journalistic sensibility be discerned in his novels?

Davies had a lifelong interest in the supernatural and even wrote a book of ghost stories. Where, in his mainstream fiction, does this interest in the supernatural manifest itself, and to what effect?

Davies is one of Canada’s best-known novelists. What about his novels is particularly Canadian, and what attitude toward Canada is presented in his novels?

Many of the characters in Davies’ novels are interested in arts other than fiction. How do such artistic endeavors as painting, drama, stage magic, and opera function in Davies’ novels as metaphors for fiction writing and for life itself?


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 31)

Readers of Robertson Davies: Man of Myth will quickly conclude that its author, Judith Skelton Grant, is the sort of person who never throws anything away. This characteristic accounts for both this biography’s greatest strengths and its most significant shortcomings.

On the one hand, Grant has collected, organized, preserved, and presented remarkable quantities of primary material about her subject, clearly Canada’s most prolific and probably most widely recognized contemporary author. Grant’s research on Davies has already resulted in the three useful collections that she has edited and published: her two editions of Davies’ journalism, The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies(1979) and Robertson Davies: The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man’s View of Theatre and Letters in Canada (1981), as well as Robertson Davies: A Consideration of His Writing (1978).

On the other hand, in her biography of Davies, which runs to nearly eight hundred pages, Grant apparently found it difficult to discard the bits of irrelevant information that most biographers acquire in the course of their research and jettison during the composing process. At times, she pursues in too much detail tangents that relate little to Davies and his work. She sets scenes competently, as when she describes the various places where Davies lived during his lifetime, but she often tells much more than is necessary to set the scene, thereby adding greatly yet unproductively to her book’s prodigious length.

Despite such caveats, one must recognize that this biography, whose comprehensiveness equals that of Margaret Brenman-Gibson’s Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940 (1981) or Jeffrey Meyers’ Hemingway: A Biography (1985), will likely prove useful to future Davies scholars. One may hope that the factual information it provides in profuse detail will, in the long term, far outweigh Grant’s sometimes plodding prose and the frequent presentation of facts almost totally lacking in thematic connection to Davies’ work.

Grant frequently points out episodes in Davies’ life that found their way into his subsequent novels or plays, but she generally settles for merely noting such occurrences without pursuing the deeper questions to which close reading and the application of the tools provided by recent critical theory would lead her.

Such readings of Davies’ work—particularly psychoanalytical readings of it—will nevertheless be aided by the fundamental groundwork that has occupied Grant for almost three decades. She has tirelessly sought out and interviewed hundreds of people whom Davies knew through the years, much as Barbara and Arthur Gelb interviewed a staggering gallery of Eugene O’Neill’s family and acquaintances for their monumental biography O’Neill (1962).

Unlike the Gelbs’ subject, Grant’s subject was alive during all of her research prior to the publication of this book. Her more than seventy interviews with Robertson Davies, therefore, have provided her with a wealth of information that will inform future scholars and that inform this biography uniquely. Grant, over an extended period, knew Davies and his family well and unquestionably demonstrates a comprehensive familiarity with her subject’s life and writing.

Robertson Davies as Grant portrays him is far from appealing, although Grant’s approach to him is positive, at times even fawning. Contemporary readers, particularly those from the United States, will likely come away from this book thinking of Davies as a man remarkably insensitive to many of the major social and political currents of his time, a man who insulated himself from events that he found painful or unpleasant. Grant never points this out directly. She does, however, offer information from which readers will inevitably draw their own conclusions.

For example, when World War II was raging, Davies, newly employed as a columnist and editorial writer for the Whig, a newspaper his father owned, wrote editorials about the Oxford twang, taking too many baths, and steam calliopes—this at a time when Adolf Hitler was running rough-shod over much of Europe and was consigning Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and dissidents to concentration camps where they would be summarily slaughtered. Davies’ isolationist readers liked his well- written, light editorials, much as an uncritical public currently venerates Rush Limbaugh, who reinforces their most deplorable prejudices. The question one must ask is whether a man of Davies’ standing and abilities should not have felt conscience-bound to do more than entertain his readership during such critical times.

If Davies is remembered a century from now, he will probably be remembered as a curious anachronism, a gifted curmudgeon who lived in a dynamic age but chose to detach himself from it. As late as 1963, when racial and ethnic consciousness was being raised rapidly worldwide, Davies returned from a visit to the Shetland Islands, his ancestral lands, and, according to Grant,

reflected “how glad one is that one’s stock was from clean, decent, wind-swept places, & not from the slums of Naples or Cracow. The strong strains which unite our children are country strains, with the physique—alas the Calvinist strenuosity—that such an inheritance brings.”

Grant, as she does elsewhere in the book, presents without comment this outrageous statement that contains sentiments to offend any thinking reader, following it merely with a genealogical chart of Brenda Davies’ family. Grant loves genealogical charts, devoting endless irrelevant pages to them and to tracing the pedigrees of various principals in the Davies story when a brief paragraph would have sufficed.

Robertson Davies essentially was a nonconfrontational person, one who venerated authority and revered the status quo, although Grant does not pursue the interesting tack that this proclivity suggests. She does note the complex and strained relationship Davies had with his mother, a neurotic woman whose hypochondria virtually disabled her. In this biography, however, she never really brings the mother (or any of the other characters who surround Davies) to life. Rather than presenting information from which readers might draw valuable conclusions about a well-developed character, Grant usually merely reports, sans illustrations or examples, that a character is neurotic or emotional or vengeful.

One exception to this tendency is in Grant’s revelation that from an early age, when Davies elicited his mother’s anger, bringing her to the point of rage, he was forced to gain her forgiveness by kneeling before her and kissing her shoes. Grant relates this bizarre ritual, which continued into Davies’ teens, without comment, although it is obvious that much of Davies’ development as an adult was influenced by the sadistic demands of an irrational, neurotic mother.

The Robertson Davies whom Grant portrays was a talented writer. Despite his having received honorary doctorates and three times having made the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature, however, he cannot legitimately be considered to have had a first-rate, analytical mind. Yet he was solidly intellectual within the narrow compass of the humanities. His early inability to comprehend even the most rudimentary mathematics is a clear indication of the kind of intellectual imbalance that marked his life. Whereas he was a keen observer and could record well the events and occurrences he observed—a skill that he honed as a journalist in his early days—he had neither a penetrating nor an analytical mind.

Grant, alas, appears to be of a similar stripe. She records but usually fails to analyze with any penetration the meaning of what she has recorded. She continually demonstrates a virtual absence of any well-developed ability to discriminate between the important and the trivial, which accounts for the unwieldy length of her biography.

Readers will come away from Grant’s biography with no clear-cut picture of Davies’ development as a writer, nor will they glean from the book a flesh-and-blood image of the writer, his family, and his associates. Any comprehensive conclusions that readers might draw from this book will be necessarily drawn on their own as they cull bits and pieces from the mountain of factual information that Grant presents virtually undigested. In order to reach this point, however, they will have had to finish reading a...

(The entire section is 3473 words.)

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A dramatist, journalist, and essayist as well as a novelist, Robertson Davies (DAY-veez) wrote plays such as Fortune, My Foe (pr. 1948), A Jig for the Gypsy (pr., pb. 1954), Hunting Stuart (pr. 1955), and dramatizations of some of his novels; histories (notably Shakespeare’s Boy Actors, 1939); numerous newspaper commentaries and columns (often for the Peterborough Examiner and the Toronto Star); and essays of all kinds, including many for volume 6 (covering the years 1750-1880) of The Revels History of Drama in English. Other occasional writings by Davies are collected in The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books (1997). A volume of his letters, titled “For Your Eyes Alone”: Letters, 1976-1995, was published in 1999.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Perhaps the foremost Canadian man of letters of his generation, Robertson Davies achieved virtually every literary distinction his country offers, including the Governor-General’s Award for fiction and fellowship in the Royal Society of Literature. He was the first Canadian honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Professor of English at the University of Toronto, he held the Edgar Stone Lecturership in Dramatic Literature (as its first recipient); he was also the founding master of Massey College.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Robertson Davies is known primarily as a novelist. His most highly acclaimed novels form the Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). These three novels were preceded by another trilogy, set in the fictional community of Salterton: Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958). Another trilogy consists of The Rebel Angels (1981), What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988). His novel Murther and Walking Spirits (1991) continued his interest in reconstructing the main character’s past by means of supernatural devices. His earliest success was the publication of three books based on a newspaper column, “The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks,” in which he offered witty observations on the social pretensions of a small Ontario town: The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and Marchbanks’ Almanack (1967).

Davies also wrote a teleplay, Fortune, My Foe (1953), and he enjoyed a considerable reputation as a critic. His articles, essays, and observations have been collected in several books, including A Voice from the Attic (1960), One Half of Robertson Davies (1977), The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979), and The Well-Tempered Critic (1981). Subjects to which he turned his sharp pen included contemporary Canadian theater, the manners and mores of small-town residents, the humor of Stephen Leacock, the history of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and the Canadian national identity. His scholarly writing centered on theater history and dramatic literature, particularly of the nineteenth century.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Robertson Davies is recognized as one of Canada’s foremost writers, and, although his influence was predominately in fiction, his impact on the emergence of drama and theater uniquely Canadian has been widely appreciated. The source of this influence was divided between his position as a respected critic and scholar and his original and striking dramatic writing. As Master of Massey College, a position he held from 1962 to 1981, and as founder and senior scholar of the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, Davies influenced two generations of students at the University of Toronto.

The period immediately following World War II was of great significance to the development of indigenous Canadian drama. A spirit of nationalism, arising in large part from the important contribution of Canadian regiments to the victory in Europe, fueled a renewed interest in plays about the Canadian experience. At the same time, there was a sharp increase in the number of plays being performed in theatrical centers such as Toronto. The new professional theater companies were looking for new plays that would appeal to local audiences and with which they could make their reputations. One such company was the Crest Theatre, and several of Davies’ plays were written for this group. Other influential plays by Davies were written for amateur companies and became staples of the amateur repertoire in Canada. As a result, between 1945 and 1965 Davies was the dominant English-Canadian playwright.

Davies was awarded the Leacock medal for humor in 1955, the Lorne Pierce medal for contribution to Canadian literature in 1961, and, in 1973, the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the recipient of honorary degrees from more than ten universities, an honorary member of the American Academy (the first Canadian to be so honored), and a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How does Robertson Davies use autobiography and history in his novels? How does one account for the differences between the author’s experiences and those of the characters who seem to represent him?

What role does the psychology of Carl Jung play in Davies’ works? How does the concept of archetypes manifest itself in the novels?

What role does Canadian nationalism play in the novels? Can the author’s attitude toward his nation be considered positive, negative, or ambivalent?

Artistic creation is an important theme in many of Davies’ novels—the visual arts, as well as music, opera, and drama. How might one characterize the author’s attitude toward art and the artist?

Robertson Davies has been characterized as a comic novelist. Is this characterization accurate? Why or why not?