Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Widely regarded as John Gardner’s most ambitious and important novel, The Sunlight Dialogues operates on a very inclusive thematic level. The holistic nature of that inquiry is clarified in the prologue, in which the old, unnamed Judge, analogous to God, says, “I made that man [Chief Clumly]. I created him, you might say. I created them all.” He assumes that “nothing in the world is universal any more; there is neither wisdom nor stability, and faithfulness is dead.” The Judge also states his opinion that entropy (the general trend of the universe toward death and disorder) explains all those people he once knew who have since disappeared. These beliefs provide the framework for the fundamental question explored in the tragic destruction of Taggart Hodge and in the destruction indirectly wrought by him via Nick Slater. The question: In an existential universe (one lacking absolute realities or truths) in which stupidity, instability, and unfaithfulness abound, what can combat entropy? Gardner’s answer is provided through the change in Chief Clumly; the change is due to his interaction with the Sunlight Man, and the change is most clearly stated in Clumly’s speech to the Dairyman’s League at the novel’s end.

At the beginning of The Sunlight Dialogues, Clumly is a letter-of-the-law, inflexible automaton, “’a man of principle,’ people said, which was to say as inflexible as a chunk of steel, with a heart so cold that if you touched it you’d stick as your fingers stick to iron at twenty below zero.” Also, as the Sunlight Man realizes through his wife’s insanity and his sons’ murder, “It’s sorrow that changes a man. But there was no sorrow in the life of the chief of police. That was his crime. There was only order, lifted against the world like rusty chickenwire to keep out a herd of cows.” Taggart himself, in his semi-insane state after the tragedies in his family, becomes the “herd of cows,” the disorder of an entropic universe, that Clumly must struggle with; the police chief immediately senses...

(The entire section is 844 words.)