Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808
Self Condemned, which concerns the strange life of an English emigre in Canada, took Toronto off the map. The first part of the novel, which attempts to explain and justify Rene Harding’s reasons for leaving England in 1939, is emotionally but not intellectually convincing. Harding, whose rational premises are mistaken, deliberately drives himself to ruin. He moves blindly out of England without ever clearly explaining why he left and moves to Canada without any realistic sense of what he will find there. His Secret History of World War Two led The Times of London to call him “fascist-minded.” His most impressive intellectual quality is a power of analysis so penetrating that nothing can withstand its intense and ultimately destructive scrutiny. Perhaps the most forceful reason for abandoning his profession and his country is expressed in Harding’s confession: “Through looking too hard at the material I was working on, I saw the maggots in it, I saw the rottenness, the fatal flaws; had to stop earning my living that way.”
The Hardings refuse to sail on the Athenia and later hear that it has been torpedoed only one hundred miles from their own ship. War is announced as they are crossing the Atlantic; to avoid submarines, they zigzag to the north, bound for Greenland. They ultimately arrive in Momaco, Canada, a town devoid of all character and charm, a living death from which no speck of civilized life could ever come; it is a variant of Mimico, a suburb southwest of Toronto on Lake Ontario: “The place was the grave of a great career: the barren spot where you ceased to think, to teach, or to write, and just rotted away.” The timorous academics of the university in Momaco are anti-English and close their ranks against the renowned outsider. Harding is cut off from all money in England, has to buy copies of his own books from secondhand dealers, and becomes a columnist on the Momaco Gazette-Herald.
The Blundell Hotel, where the Hardings live in exile, penury, and confinement, is the violent microcosm of the outside world. In that inhuman void, nothing can be done “except wait for the mail, which always brought discouraging news, or listen to the radio, which droned on in its senseless ritual, or write something which might never see the light.” The bitter cold penetrates the body like radium, and temperatures often fall to thirty degrees below zero.
The hotel, the central feature of the book, is destroyed by flames, smoke, and ice. Wyndham Lewis’ account of the fire, one of the most vivid scenes in the novel, was inspired by Dante’s description of fire and ice in the frozen Lake of Cocytus, which holds the souls of traitors in the Tenth Circle of Hell. The apocalyptic extinction of the hotel reinforces Harding’s hellish suffering in that cursed place. At the very end of the novel, when he becomes a glacial shell of a man, he resembles the frozen cave of the burnt-out hotel. When Mrs. McAffie, the hotel manager, discovers that Mr. Martin, the owner of the hotel, has committed arson, she is murdered by him.
The fiery destruction of the hotel divides the Hardings’ life in Momaco into two dissimilar halves. Harding, fortunately, is invited by a Father Moody to join the faculty of the College of the Sacred Heart, a tranquil retreat with a genial atmosphere, and the priests hope for his conversion.
Hester Harding entertains the most vicious feelings about Canada. Harding desensitizes himself and tries to ignore his wife’s “Hesteria” and breakdown (ironically induced by his offer of a professorship at the University of Momaco) and her last desperate effort to force him to return to England. When Harding sees Hester on a slab in the morgue after she has thrown herself under a truck, her head, which has miraculously escaped destruction, seems strangely detached from her body, as if to symbolize the separation of intellect and emotion in their marriage. Hester represents passive and pathetic creatures who suffer and die. Though Hester’s death has a profound emotional effect on Harding—who retches, sobs, and faints—he then coldly condemns her suicide as a form of vengeance, an act of insane coercion, and he refuses to be influenced by her sacrifice: “My cold refusal to do what she wanted crazed her egoistic will. She was willing to die in order to force me off the path I had chosen.”
After Hester’s suicide, Harding realizes that he can never fill the dark and chilling void left by her death. She supplied his affective life, and her death has left him emotionally empty. He accepts a job at a pretentious American university and ironically ends, as he began, a successful and disillusioned professor of history: the benefactor and victim of his penetrating powers of analysis.
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