Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Malraux’s preoccupation with man’s fate in The Royal Way, as indicated by his characters’ attempts to define meaningful human action and by the author’s treatment of the themes of fraternity and death, gives the novel a depth lacking in the usual adventure story. An additional, unifying theme, characteristic of virtually all Malraux’s writings, is the basic question of human communication. This theme is most strikingly illustrated in the case of Grabot, the most horrible aspect of whose degradation is his inability to communicate. Yet difficulty in communication is also evident between the whites and the native population. Here the problem stems not only from political tension but also from barriers that are at once linguistic, social, and psychological. Finally, even between Claude and Perken, friendship notwithstanding, communication is far from easy. Neither man is capable of fully expressing his thoughts on such complex matters as human destiny and death; at the end, because of Perken’s illness, Claude can be neither a companion nor an interlocutor for him.

Since he wishes to focus on the human condition, Malraux’s narrative technique is less concerned with highly individualizing the novel’s main characters and displaying their complicated psychology than it is with underscoring their common revolt against the absurdity of human existence. Thus, instead of an omniscient narrator who explains these characters thoroughly and ensures the clarity of the plot development, Malraux creates a narrator who takes as his own in turn the respective points of view of Claude and Perken. The consequence of this method is twofold: an obligation on the reader’s part to “fill in the gaps” and a subjective process of narration related to the characters’ physical and psychological reactions. The reader knows, for example, that the moment of Perken’s death is approaching not from any precise indication of the passage of time—the novel shuns dates or the chronicling of objective time—but from the fact that his leg has become so terribly swollen. Similarly, since Claude and Perken see the jungle primarily as an anarchic formlessness, it emerges symbolically as an obstacle to their determination to impose their own sense of order and coherence on external nature.