Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469
Although The New Yorker (March 9, 1935) found Seven Poor Men of Sydney “disappointing,” Australia’s Bulletin (November 28, 1934) focused on Stead’s evident skill: “Seven Poor Men is a remarkable book if only for its virtuosity.” To readers of the 1930’s, who were growing in their awareness of the influence of modernism in fiction, Stead’s first novel may have been puzzling, but to later generations it does not seem difficult. Seven Poor Men of Sydney contains the poetic style, use of monologue to define character, and picaresque structure that were to become hallmarks of her fiction.
The novel has no plot in the conventional sense, although a thematic pattern emerges from the developing personal and social relationships among family members and friends. The major characters in the novel are Michael Baguenault, an alienated war veteran; his sister, Catherine, an idealistic political activist; their cousin, Joseph, a poor printer of devout Catholic faith; and Baruch Mendelsson, a young Jewish intellectual who works with Joseph. The first two chapters are occupied with Michael, intense and introspective, who rejects his family (except for Catherine), his church, and his school. He falls in love, is rejected, enlists in World War I, and returns to Australia suffering from nervous disorders. He takes up with several young socialists with whom Catherine works in the movement.
The novel shifts focus to Joseph Baguenault and Baruch Mendelsson, who work at Chamberlin’s printing press. Business is bad, salaries are in arrears, and Chamberlin is incompetent. Another employee, Withers, is plotting to take over the press. There is much discussion of socialism and capitalism, with each character responding to these ideas according to his or her individual viewpoint. There are flirtations and infatuations, and many minor characters. The story returns to Michael and Catherine and to Michael’s increasing sense of alienation. The climax occurs in chapter eight when Michael, after a period of wandering, intoxication, hallucinations, and unfulfilled love, is swept to his death from the treacherous cliffs of Fisherman’s Bay. This event drives Catherine to an asylum and shakes Joseph’s religious faith, although at the end of the novel Joseph is tranquil as he reflects on the trials of long ago.
Each character is at the mercy of forces beyond his or her control, and each reacts to this fact in individual, different ways. Michael is the only one to surrender to personal and public chaos; the others survive. Seven Poor Men of Sydney is about youthful idealism and the way urban poverty affects human lives. It is more modern than many other novels of its time because of the way it concentrates upon its characters’ inner lives in a poetic, expressionistic way. Despite its apparently haphazard structure, the novel develops unity through conflict, a thematic organizing device that recurs in Stead’s later novels.