The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Any examination of Snow’s approach to characterization must begin with Lewis Eliot, for much of Strangers and Brothers is his story; furthermore, all of the reader’s responses to the other characters and the principal events of the novel are uniquely colored by Lewis’ own values. Snow’s point of view, throughout the series, is first person, restricted. This narrative technique carries with it certain limitations, mainly Lewis’ inability to probe fully the minds of the people he describes.

If Lewis, lacking omniscience, is limited in his ability to evoke the full emotional life of his characters, he stops short of letting the reader penetrate the deepest recesses of his own mind. In many ways, Lewis is strangely diffident as he recounts the story of his life. Is it merely modesty which keeps him from rendering explicitly his many positive accomplishments? The reader learns of his knighthood, surely a dramatic event in the life of a poor boy from the Midlands, only indirectly. When Lewis emerges from the hospital, following his mysterious cardiac arrest (in Last Things), he is greeted by no fewer than twelve photographers, which suggests that he is much more celebrated than he has previously revealed. Finally, in Last Things, he relates in an aside that he is going to make his son, Charles, “financially independent,” implying that Lewis has attained great wealth as well as status. Perhaps Lewis’ failure to toot his own horn, as it were, stems from typical British reserve, but one wonders how much he has chosen not to reveal, and why.

Indeed, Lewis remains, even after eleven volumes, an eriigmatic figure. The inability to know another person fully, however, is surely part of Snow’s point, as he depicts a society in which even brothers are often strangers to one another. Lewis’ propensity to play down the signs of his worldly success may also be viewed as an attempt on Snow’s part to sustain an image of Lewis as an Everyman figure, one with whom the average reader might identify, even though Lewis must achieve sufficient material success to allow him access to the “corridors of power” he depicts. How successfully Snow has managed to have it both ways is debatable.

In any case, it seems, ultimately, that Snow wants his reader to take both Lewis and his judgments of others at face value. If there is any implied criticism of Lewis, it comes from Lewis himself, who often speaks candidly of his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Yet some readers think that Lewis is too easy on himself, that much of his self-imposed guilt does not run deep enough. In Time of Hope, Lewis, asked by Sheila to help cement the relationship between her and another man, does the exact opposite; speaking in frightening terms of Sheila’s neurosis, he drives the man away. When Lewis finally wins Sheila, who, like Pip’s Estella in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-1861), has often confessed her inability to return his love, he speaks in self-pitying fashion of Sheila’s destructive effect upon his career and his psyche. There is no implicit irony here; the reader is supposed to identify completely with Lewis. In Homecoming, Lewis’ clandestine affair with his former lover Margaret Davidson is climaxed by his demand that she divorce her husband, who loves her. Lewis’ subsequent remorse at having stolen another man’s wife is hardly overwhelming.

Ultimately, perhaps, one concurs with Lewis, as he looks back on his life in Last Things, that as far as personal relations go, he has been less than perfect. Snow is not, however, attempting to portray a saint. Despite his foibles, Lewis’ positive and essentially human qualities make him a man whose...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)