Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Survivor is a union of two seemingly unmixable themes. The dominant line of the novel is concerned with the guilt which Alec Ramsey has carried for more than forty years as a result of his betrayal of his much-admired leader, Leeming. It is, for him, a failure of character which would have been sufficiently ignoble had it only been a matter of sexual insult, but it is compounded by two things: his failure to confess his sin to Leeming before the latter’s death, and the revelation, in his last conversation with Dr. Lloyd, that Leeming may have been alive when they went off without him. His dim memory of their last moments with Leeming nag at him, since they suggest that he did nothing actively to assure himself of Leeming’s death but merely depended on Lloyd’s professional assurance that Leeming’s life was finished. He may have acquiesced to an ungentlemanly act.

His personal and public life has been bedeviled by this sense of sin, and the novel explores the way in which Ramsey, by pure chance, is made to learn the truth about the death and the life of Stephen Leeming. Wallowing in self-pity, in a romantic idea of himself as a kind of Ancient Mariner, Ramsey, although basically a decent man, uses his sinful state as an excuse for not fully living his life, for dying psychologically every time the Leeming affair is mentioned. In a perverse way, it is a crutch for him, a way in which he sees himself as different from others.


(The entire section is 552 words.)