A number of characters, gathered in a pub, ask themselves why they persevered so many years with the only method of family planning sanctioned by the Catholic Church—namely, the “frustrating, inconvenient, ineffective, anxiety- and tension-creating” technique known as the “rhythm method.” They leave with a variety of answers: conditioning, the repressive power of the clergy, guilt about sex, fear of hell. What is more, the characters discover later—after the second Vatican Council of 1968—that the suffering had not been necessary in the first place.
This subject—the Roman Catholic ban on contraception—runs like a leitmotiv through David Lodge’s sixth novel, Souls and Bodies. Lodge’s characters gradually come to abandon the Church’s worldview, a process marked by a steady change in their sense of what seems credible. “At some point in the nineteen-sixties,” remarks the narrator, “Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t.” It is a subject of considerable interest and concern, especially to Roman Catholics, and one that has not been treated substantively by any other novelist—certainly not in the comic mode in which Lodge treats it.
A Roman Catholic by birth and upbringing, Lodge started his literary career about the time the Catholic novel was declining, but he has retained a professional interest in it and has written studies of Evelyn Waugh (whose interest was Catholic aristocracy) and Graham Greene (whose interest was in rather extreme situations and faraway places where spiritual values are seen in a new, tormented way).
Souls and Bodies can best be understood within the context of Lodge’s career as a novelist. Catholicism is central in three of his novels: The Picturegoers (1960); The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965); and Souls and Bodies, published in England as How Far Can You Go? (1980). In all three books, Lodge’s Catholic characters are ordinary; one finds no desolate aristocrats (such as Waugh’s Lord Marchmaine) or spiritual exotics (such as Greene’s whiskey priest).
The Picturegoers focuses on its hero’s religious struggles and ends with Mark and Clare Mallory content with their eight children. For several years, they have not had any more children, and since contraception is firmly forbidden to Catholics, the question of how they have avoided another child—assuming Clare is still fertile—is left unanswered.
The subject of contraception becomes of central interest in both The British Museum Is Falling Down and Souls and Bodies. The hero of the former is Adam Appleby, an anxious Catholic graduate student, married with three children and with the nagging possibility that a fourth might be on...
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