The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Given his position as head of the import-export firm of Blackett and Webb, Walter, as a character, provides access to a wide social range, which in addition to being the basis of the novel’s panoramic exposition of Singapore, enables the reader to think of him as the embodiment of the British Imperial adventure in the colony. Such a view is facilitated by the fact that Walter seems to have a comprehensively secure grip on the colony’s main raison d’Etre, which is trade. True, he may not have been as opportunistic as he should have been in cornering the increasingly important palm-oil trade. Nevertheless, he personifies the self-satisfied middleman, who merely by positioning himself advantageously can reap the benefits of the world’s natural wealth.

His very success, however, blinds him to the possibility of decline. One of his main objections to the Japanese threat is that it will force the postponement of the parade planned to mark the centenary of Blackett and Webb. When Walter recognizes that the writing is indelibly on the wall, he even considers collaborating with the Japanese, so unwilling is he to forgo the round of greed, exploitation, and petty tyranny which his presence unwittingly but inescapably creates.

Joan, deprived by her sex rather than by her ability from taking advantage of the characteristics of her father, expresses them instead in a more fragile and intimate context than that of the marketplace, namely in personal relations. Her unquestioning belief in her own superiority and desirability leads her to manipulate and exploit those who respond to her allure. Her behavior, which evidently intends to place men in her clutches as tightly as her father grips Singapore, provides a deftly ironic commentary...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Walter Blackett

Walter Blackett, the protagonist, the ambitious co-owner and acting director of the Singapore firm of Blackett and Webb. Walter is a commanding figure, with pale blue eyes and white hair and mustache; his large head looms over a compact body and short legs. An entrepreneur convinced of his own worth, for years Walter has greedily exploited the native economy to advance company interests and has used the law and corrupt officials to undermine local competition. As the Japanese invade and Singapore falls, he remains contemptuous of Asians in general and is more concerned with his company’s simple-minded allegorical Jubilee pageant and with his rivals, the Langfields, than with historical inevitability. A prototype of the uprooted British imperialist, he is held tightly by the “Singapore grip,” the dream of greater and greater financial coups, and is blind to the realities of his and the British position in Malaya. He considers collaborating with the Japanese more acceptable than forgoing his long-held tyrannical power.

Monty Blackett

Monty Blackett, Walter’s spoiled and insensitive thirty-year-old son and heir apparent. With blue, bulging eyes and poor judgment, he is clearly his father’s son. Amoral and mindlessly exuberant, Monty thinks of the natives only in terms of sexual encounters and amusement potential. As a second-generation colonial convinced of British superiority and native inferiority, he implements his father’s plans for exploitation with self-assured aplomb, no matter how injurious to the locals.

Joan Blackett

Joan Blackett, Walter’s bumptious, headstrong, and coldly calculating daughter, a femme fatale who toys with the sensitive Ehrendorf and who then tries to capture Matthew and his half of the business. A product of a Swiss finishing school, healthy and solidly built in the English manner, Joan is contemptuous of provincial Singapore. Her youthful, rebellious affairs are a trial to her parents, though her pursuit of Matthew wins their blessing. Having forced him, while weak from fever, to consent to her marriage proposal, she is affronted by his later forceful rejection of the engagement. She and her brother share an unquestioning belief in their own superiority and in their right to manipulate and exploit those around them. They are both overwhelmingly materialistic; matters of the soul and conscience are unknown to them. Joan relies on sexual allure to grip the men under her spell; she is self-serving, predatory, grasping, and ruthless, as confirmed by her attempts to escape from Singapore with her unexpectedly acquired husband, Nigel Langfield.

Matthew Webb

Matthew Webb, the conscience-ridden son and...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)