Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Lewis’ greatest novel, which T. S. Eliot called “a book of almost unbearable spiritual agony,” was written during his years of blindness—a central metaphor in the book. It remains extraordinarily close to his personal experience and gains enormous power by the self-lacerating exposure of his most intimate feelings and deepest suffering. Yet Lewis also maintains the requisite aesthetic distance which allows him to create a novel that transcends his barren and scarifying years in Toronto.

Like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877), another novel of an outcast couple whose love cannot withstand the torments of almost universal opposition, the end of Self Condemned is foreshadowed by early allusions to suicide, by Harding’s fears that Hester might leave him, and by Hester’s threat of self-destruction. All these dark warnings anticipate her doom with the prophetic force of a classical tragedy.

When Harding resigned his position in England, he had an intellectual crisis, saw the gulf between “history” and reality, rejected the comfortable assumptions of society and the compromising restrictions of ordinary existence, and gave in to the willful impulse to destroy his career. Though cynical about the possibilities of exile and stricken with sorrow and regret, he never imagined that he would be struck down, humiliated, and driven into the wilderness. When Harding recognizes that his life in Momaco has become an unbearable self-exile, he tries to integrate himself into society. The hotel fire revives his hopes through its cleansing destruction and is followed by professorships at the College of the Sacred Heart and at Momaco. Harding is a hard, objective man who attempts to isolate himself behind a suitcase and blanket in the hotel room so that he will not be distracted by his wife. He is never able to live entirely by will and intellect, however, and never reconciles the opposition of the rational and emotional, the icy and fiery aspects of his character and marriage.