Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
The Unbearable Bassington synthesizes the attitudes, ideas, techniques, stylistic mannerisms, and narrative quirks that made Saki one of the most entertaining and provocative writers in Edwardian England. It was also his first novel and represents his most serious attempt to gain recognition as an important literary artist. The great artistic merit of The Unbearable Bassington suggests that, had Saki not been killed in World War I, he might well have ranked with Aldous Huxley as a satirical chronicler of the disillusioned, disintegrating British upper class in the years following the war.
The Unbearable Bassington immediately impresses the reader as a vivid, brilliant, amusing, ironical portrait of pre-World War I upper-class English society. As a member of that group, Saki knows it intimately and, although he never seriously questions the social and political institutions that support it—the rigid class system, economic and social injustice, and imperialism—he sees its brittleness, shallowness, frivolity, and materialism, and he describes it with a deft and bitter wit that is as provoking as it is amusing. If most of the personages are more caricature than character, they are a colorful crew, in constant motion and conflict. The dialogue is made up of a steady stream of acute observations, sharp, witty exchanges, and brilliant epigrams. The social rituals, subtle class distinctions, and special mannerisms of the group are sketched with both careful precision and ironical understatement.
There is more to The Unbearable Bassington than a witty description of a superficial social stratum. The real importance of the novel depends on the seriousness of the action and the fates of the primary characters. Saki reveals his true feelings about not only his own social grouping but also life in general. At the center of The Unbearable Bassington is the tragicomic mother-son relationship of the two “unbearable” Bassingtons, Comus and Francesca.
Comus’s unbearableness is mitigated by his wit, his liveliness, and his honest awareness of, and ironical attitude toward, the self-destructive streak that guarantees he will do precisely the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time to destroy any chance he may have for success or happiness. He is frustrated by his Edwardian society and alienated from it. He desperately wants to belong to it, yet he systematically botches every opportunity he has to consolidate his position in it, first in driving off Emmeline Chetrof and then, more important, in alienating himself from Elaine de Frey. It is impossible to say whether these impulsive, apparently subconscious, self-defeating actions are the result of a curious integrity or a weak perversity.
The love-hate relationship Comus feels toward his social milieu is most intensely focused in his feelings toward his mother. When Comus systematically ruins his chances for “good” marriages, does he do it to upset his mother’s plans? If so, is it hostility? Or perhaps resentment at being “used” to assure her financial security? Or love—an attempt to force her to come out of her materialistic shell and behave toward him as a real mother?
The climax of the relationship comes when, after Comus loses Elaine to Courtney Youghal, they discuss his future. He suggests they “sell something”—meaning the “Van der Meulen” painting—to give him the capital to go into business. She refuses and so, discouraged, Comus agrees to try West Africa, where he withers and dies.
In view of the close identification of Comus’s fate with the picture, it is difficult to understand the critical objections to the final revelation that the “Van der Meulen” is, in fact, a fake. The pathos and bitterness that emerge from The Unbearable Bassington come from Francesca having chosen her material objects over her son; she discovers, too late, how much she really loves and needs him and how little her possessions really matter. Thus, Henry’s final revelation that the picture is phony, told to Francesca as she sits clutching the cablegram informing her of Comus’s death, brings together the book’s thematic and emotional elements into a bitterly ironic and dramatically potent conclusion. Without it, the book’s ending would be merely sad; with it, the finale touches the fringes of tragedy—but only the fringes.
Neither Comus nor his mother is the stuff of which real tragedy can be made. Their lives are too artificial, their preoccupations too trivial, their values too frivolous, and their flaws too venal to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, the antiheroic view of life that developed and flourished since Saki’s time makes the poignancy and absurdity of their final situation most vivid and acceptable to the modern reader. If Saki is the chronicler of a society and world that vanished with World War I, his attitude toward that world seems especially valid for the complex, ambiguous world that succeeded it.
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