Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Tremor of Intent is a lighthearted performance with a serious core: its interests are in fallen, dehumanized, faithless man, in his physical and ethical substitutes for religious belief, in free will, in the evil of noncommitment, and in the world’s strong tendency to polarize moral, political, and religious issues. Often the novel’s themes and motifs are buried in its inclination to stylistic playfulness and in almost casual minor echoes of its central ideas.

Burgess’ title refers to the contrary motives of his protagonist, who ultimately rises above his technical functions to become a full person. The novel is packed with demonstrations of a dualistic world: Even a tune Hillier hears in Yarylyuk, “You Want Lovin’ but I Want Love,” epitomizes this fundamental dichotomy. It is only in Ireland as a priest that Hillier can finally appreciate the unity of disparities: “Friend and enemy are caught in a stone clinch. It looks very much like the embrace of lovers.”

Eating and drinking are major motifs throughout, because forms of sensuality are so strongly associated with Burgess’ characters. Schooling, lecturing, and varieties of catechism also figure frequently, as do musical analogies: The notions of harmony and discord reflect the grander concepts of unity and polarity. Like other motifs, the latter appears in clever miniatures: Burning Ricky’s corpse with his own telltale brand, Hillier “continued, delicate as a musician, his scoring.”

Burgess’ obvious delight in wordplay, literary allusions, and cunning combinations is evident everywhere; even Hillier’s “jocular Russian” is rendered like the effusion of a British navvy. Such archness may be less gratuitously linked to the novel’s motifs of games-playing and acting, as in Theodorescu’s conceit that espionage is “all a great childish game on the floor of the world.”