Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4279
Two central forces shaped V. S. Pritchett’s artistry: his family and his urge to break away from it. The picture that Pritchett gives of his home life in A Cab at the Door is of a fantastic edifice of dreams, resounding with the words of Walter Pritchett—self-complacent, moralizing, and sometimes angry words. The family life Walter tried to create was a fantasy at which Beatrice chipped away. She wailed jealous complaints and remonstrated; she told stories about dead relatives, dead pets, and dead royalty; above all, she told jokes that ended with her bursting into hysterical laughter, rocking on her chair, and peering out at her audience from behind spread fingers, her skirts hoisted above her knees and her bloomers showing. If his father’s words imprisoned the young Pritchett, his mother’s opened a chink into the world where people voiced their feelings and cried, and where, most important, they laughed.
When Pritchett began to read widely, he discovered fictions other than his father’s and was led to a consideration of the worlds that prompted them. (That he thought there was some literal place where life was better is demonstrated by his early desire to travel.) It is characteristic of his imagination that as a young man going to work in London he was reminded of Charles Dickens, rather than of London when reading Dickens, and that as a septuagenarian, in Midnight Oil, he described himself as two people—the writer, “the prosing man at the desk,” and the other self, “the valet who dogs him and does the living.” For Pritchett, in short, life followed art, and this order of things is important for understanding the writer.
Probably because Pritchett’s interest in literature arose suddenly from his recognition that print is like paint, that it can create pictures that open onto other perspectives, his writing is predominantly descriptive, hisnarrative perhaps more lyric than dramatic. Added to his visual acuity is a good ear for dialect, developed from adjusting his own language to whatever new neighborhood he found himself in as a boy and from speaking French and Spanish as a young man. The mundane world, consequently, is richly evoked in his works. He is not primarily concerned with recording the details of the external world, however, for he is too much of an essentialist in purpose and too richly comic in manner to be preoccupied with strict representationalism. Like the Victorians, he studies characters in social settings; like Dickens and Thomas Hardy, his first-loved novelists, he concerns himself with the social environment as a condition of character. Place and class are important as limiters—of experience, language, and the stuff of fantasy. He evokes them with selected, exaggerated, and often symbolic images, usually visual, and through the words the characters speak. Perhaps no other twentieth century writer is as adept as Pritchett at representing society through these brilliant half-strokes. In the sense of upholding the value—whether mythical, political, or moral—of one class above another, however, he is ultimately one of the least class-conscious of English writers. His authorial position is class-free, his attitude independent.
His real divergence from social realism is most obvious in his characters, who ring true, but not because they are singly imitative of individuals with whom one might rub shoulders in the real world. The eccentrics who populate his books are instead caricatures through which are enacted certain emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic problems. The conflicting versions of the world created by the various characters produce a collision at theclimax that is often understated and ironic, and perhaps it is the frequency of this “silent” climax that has led to the charge by critics that Pritchett’s plotting is weak. Then, too, character and situation above all capture his attention. In a relatively static fashion, one resembling portraiture more than dramatic literature, he touches and retouches his central point.
The unifying theme of Pritchett’s fiction concerns dreaming as an ambiguous mechanism of the imagination, for it can lead either to freedom or to imprisonment. According to their way of dreaming, his characters fall loosely into two categories. The first is the egotist. He has many faces, but essentially he is the one who, as is said of Mr. Beluncle, never dreams at all—except when he is awake. Usually he is treated humorously, under a Dickensian light, and when there is an objective narrator, in the Meredithian manner: incisively, ironically, and epigrammatically. The egotist, by placing himself at the center of things and acting out his dreams, tries to negate the three-dimensional world. His dreams are for the most part unrealizable and his version of the world untenable, and he appears comically two-dimensional as a result. The second character type, the artist, recognizes and belongs to the world where perspectives shift. Like the egotist, he dreams, but, unlike the egotist’s desires, his longings and aspirations are curbed by an awareness of actual conditions. He is, moreover, capable of holding contradictory dreams, or accounts of the world, in his mind at the same time.
Dead Man Leading
Pritchett’s first three novels draw on his experiences in Ireland, Spain, and London. They were not successful, and in Midnight Oil he writes that they were “machines for conveying [his] characters into a trap.” In Dead Man Leading, he tried something new. Instead of looking for essences in the stuff of his own experience, he concocted a material world to convey the essence of masochism. His idea, that explorers are motivated by masochism, he inferred from reading biographies; his setting, Brazil, was known to him only through literature. To pick up mundane details he read missionaries’ diaries and talked about Manaos with a drunken businessman on leave, and to fix the setting clearly in mind, he made a small model of the river in his garden. This method of writing the book is partly responsible for both its strengths and its weaknesses. It is overloaded with the pop-Freudianism that infects the literature of the 1930’s and is too imitative in its symbolism, whether consciously or not, of Joseph Conrad. Still, it shows an uncommon force of imagination in other respects and a strong narrative power, and—being a symbolic tale approaching psychological allegory—it sheds light on his other works.
The story concerns an expedition by three men, each of whom is an egotist of sorts. The first is Charles Wright, a famous explorer, now middle-aged, who is making the expedition to complete a former, aborted one. The second is Harry Johnson, the chosen companion of Wright, a young Englishman who works in the Brazilian timber industry and uses his leaves to explore the far reaches of the world. He and Wright are “camp companions,” initiates into the thoroughly masculine world where women are “bad luck.” The third is Gilbert Phillips, who stands outside their circle, a stranger to their code. He envied Harry when they were boys together, and now, as a journalist, he is trying to acquire courage by following bold men. These characters—especially Wright and Johnson—are less persuasive as people than as Freudian symbols.
Despite Wright’s nominal leadership, Johnson is at the head of the group. The expedition, which occurs in three stages (not counting the long expository flashback), is a primal regression into the interior of Johnson’s being, a gradual peeling-back of his adult self. The flashback, in which we learn that Johnson has had an affair with Wright’s stepdaughter, Lucy, and is now burdened with guilt and a desire for self-punishment, lays the foundation for the analysis of his puritanical, masochistic psychology, according to which Wright and Lucy (to whom Wright had been attracted before marrying her mother) serve as father and mother surrogates. Through the first stage of the expedition, the journey upriver with Phillips to meet Wright, Johnson grows feverish and, in an irrational effort to avoid Wright, tries to persuade Phillips to disembark and strike out over land. When they do rendezvous with Wright, Johnson is put to bed in the house of a whiskey-besotted Cockney named Calcott, who entertains him while Wright and Phillips are off hunting turtle eggs. He encourages Johnson in his misogyny (“all women are dagoes”) and insists that Johnson is there to look for his father, a missionary who slept in the same room before disappearing into the jungle years earlier. Calcott’s Portuguese confidant, Jose Silva, lends support to Calcott by pretending to be the voice of the dead man in a séance arranged for Johnson’s benefit. When Phillips and Wright are detained for several days by a storm and Johnson grows impatient to try his luck, Silva, thinking there might be gold in it for him, encourages Johnson to set out and to take him along. When Phillips and Wright return, then, Johnson is gone—now leading the expedition.
The second stage consists of Johnson’s trip with Silva. Johnson, making a conscious decision neither to flee his friends nor to follow his father, simply goes on without turning back. Loosened from the “net” the minds of others cast over him, he drifts into a world where the birds whistle “like boys” and Silva chatters and frolics in the sand. Silva is like a boy-genie (an “artist,” the narrator calls him) released by Harry’s subconscious to grant his deepest wishes. After several days, however, Johnson is overtaken and, in a strained reunion with Wright, breaks down, regressing to an angry child wishing for the death of his father. Wright, attempting to restore harmony, invites him to go out hunting. While they are spearing fish in a mud hole, a jaguar surprises them and, in the panic of the moment, Wright shoots himself. By the time Johnson is able to bring him in, Wright is dead. Characteristically, Johnson thinks this accident has been caused by his own weakness and that his weakness has been brought upon him by Lucy. He now feels “that he had no longer a self, that he was scattered, disintegrated—nothing.”
So begins the third and final stage of the expedition. Johnson’s idea, if he has one, is to walk until he encounters the South American Indians who are presumed to have killed his father. Although Phillips has lost his interest in the expedition with the death of Wright, he has promised Lucy, with whom he also has had an affair, that he will take care of Johnson. Consequently, when Silva and the crew turn back, Phillips follows him overland, hoping to save him from the ultimate solitude of the grave. At first, Johnson tolerates his company, but after a few days, Phillips conceives the idea that he intends to leave him behind. When Phillips is nearly dead of thirst, Johnson decides to search for water, leaving a note and his gun behind. Roused from delirium before Johnson is out of sight, Phillips believes he is being abandoned and fires at him. Johnson is last seen looking back at Phillips before turning and automatically marking a trail he will not follow back. Without Phillips, representative perhaps of the social aspect of the ego, Johnson is finally alone, free to rejoin his father, death.
The setting, seemingly so important to the action, is largely created by images drawn from the characters’ private states of mind. When England to Gilbert is a fresh memory, for example, the wake of the boat is “like an old mat,” and the “slow clapping” of vultures’ wings is “like dusty and ragged rugs being shaken.” Later, when he is obsessed with keeping the fire low, the vultures wheeling overhead are “like two bits of charred paper tossed up by the draught of a fire.” As it is imagined by the characters, the setting helps to describe and explain their motivations. As a stage for playing out a psychological drama, it is nowhere better adapted to the purpose than in the chapter presenting Wright’s death. In the topography, the mud hole, and the appearance of the jaguar, the imagery binds character to setting, and the action expresses subconscious desires.
The role of language in shaping the world surfaces as an explicit theme in each stage of the expedition. In the first, Silva speaks in the “voice” of Johnson’s father and in the second in the voice of the child within. By a Freudian model, Silva can be understood as the voice of Johnson’s ego, at one time speaking out of the superego and at another out of the id. In the third stage of the expedition, when Johnson feels disintegrated, Silva is absent. In this last stage, Johnson and Phillips develop a special camaraderie, complete with its own vocabulary, which the narrator explains at some length. First they coin new words for the essentials of their life—“water” becoming “mud,” for example—then they abbreviate them, and then they lapse into nearly total silence. This loss of society, of language, of the vocabulary necessary for cultivating the physical world, parallels Johnson’s regression.
As analyzed in Dead Man Leading, the desire to explore is masochistic, and masochism arises from the sexual guilt produced by puritanism. Puritanism, Walter Allen has noted, is Pritchett’s main study, and in no other book is his recurring theme more evident, yet Pritchett’s attitude toward Johnson’s puritanism and toward Johnson himself is not clear. Although Johnson behaves ridiculously, he is not treated as a comic character. Indeed, Pritchett creates a good deal of sympathy for him, portraying him as a troubled, possibly even tragic, hero. Certainly, by doing what others cannot do, he is great: He cuts through the world of social convention and conscious activity directly into the world of unadulterated egotism, into the dreamworld where accidents really do make wishes come true. In this sense, Johnson is like Beluncle, an artist of egotism. The general ambivalence of the authorial attitude toward Johnson, however, is probably caused by the thorny subject matter: the relationships among father, mother, and son, which Pritchett eventually mastered in late middle age.
It was not until 1951, after a decade of book reviewing and short-story writing, that Pritchett published his next novel. Mr. Beluncle is concerned with what he calls in Midnight Oil his “obsessive subject”: his father. Dead Man Leading is concerned with this obsessive subject, too, but the father in question is not drawn directly from Pritchett’s own, and it is the son’s, not the father’s, story. Mr. Beluncle, in contrast, presents an unmistakable portrait of Walter Pritchett. Pritchett’s manner in this book is not, as it is in Dead Man Leading, to approach his subject and character earnestly but to create an attitude, which can be termed “objective sympathy,” out of a barbed, epigrammatic wit reminiscent of George Meredith. Both books concern the quality of the individual’s imagination and the power of dreaming, but Mr. Beluncle is far superior, its subject and manner being natural to Pritchett’s genius and fully under control. Indeed, all of Pritchett’s strengths are united in Mr. Beluncle to produce what is surely his finest novel.
Compared with Dead Man Leading, so like a boy’s adventure story, Mr. Beluncle is a quiet book. Both books are, in a sense, character studies, but in Dead Man Leading, to the extent that it is psychological allegory, the primary means of characterization is action, whereas in Mr. Beluncle, it is portraiture. Mr. Beluncle works largely through long gazes at Beluncle penetrated by a quick narrative omniscience, through set presentations of monologues and incremental repetition of ritualized behavior, and through a panorama of supporting characters. Many of the minor characters are eccentrics in their own right, but in the narrative, they serve Mr. Beluncle in his fantastic egotism.
Mr. Beluncle occupies two domains, in each of which he possesses a helpmate and a family. At home, it is his wife, Ethel, and his sons, Henry, George, and Leslie. At work, it is his business partner, Mrs. Linda Truslove, his junior partner, Mr. Everard Chilly, and his typist. At home, he is a tyrant, self-complacently moralizing to his family, filling his drawers with expensive clothing while neglecting to give Ethel housekeeping money, and refusing to allow the family members to go out alone or to have friends. A fleshy man himself, he does not want them to leave him because he feels diminished; they are “like vultures pulling his flesh off him.” At work, he is a fake, busying himself with writing aphorisms on slips of paper, daydreaming about a new house, issuing commands, and driving the company car over to the showroom. It is in fact Mrs. Truslove who runs the company, who has bought the car, and who has tried to save the business from Beluncle’s extravagances.
Mrs. Truslove has been in love with Beluncle for years and subject to his persuasions, but it is not she who basically enables him to live in his house of delusion. That role is reserved for his other “mistress,” the Church of the Last Purification. With its easy transcendentalism and its central doctrine that evil is illusion, the religion has enabled him to dismiss as illusory anything unpleasant and to achieve such a degree of self-importance that God, like his family and associates, serves him. “God is a radio station,” he asserts in an expansive moment; “God is Supply,” in a moment of financial need. His most immediate need, he thinks, is another new house; having heard that in the Father’s house are many mansions, he is certain that “one has been prepared” for him. Especially congenial to his sensibility is the church’s equating evil and sex. A very clean man married to a somewhat slovenly woman, Beluncle finds it “hard to realize that woman is a Divine Idea.” Because his “sexual instinct interfered with the acquisitive,” he is gratified by church doctrine, since, as Lady Roads, head of the local church, says, “it takes sex out of love.” His way is thus clear to express it more naturally, by using his attractiveness to women (his sister, his mother, Lady Roads, Mrs. Truslove, and Mrs. Robinson, a tearoom manageress) to seduce them out of their money. He manages everything with charm and righteousness, always depending on God, who is (as Mrs. Truslove thinks of it) the “joker in his pack.” The story is about the collapse of his house of cards.
Beluncle’s huge capacity for dreaming has produced his success to date, but it is the very thing that destroys him in the end. Encouraged to daydream by the transcendental aspect of Purification theology, he ignores factual circumstances. Accountants, for example, amaze him because they actually believe the figures on paper. “You can add it up this way, you can add it up that way and every time you get a different answer,” he opines and adds, “As Shakespeare says, it’s all in your mind.” Mrs. Truslove, though, is one who believes the figures on paper, and because she is finished loving him, signals her intention of withdrawing from the business. At home, he has disappointments too. Chief among them is his son Henry, who without Beluncle’s knowledge has fallen in love with the stationmaster’s daughter, Mary Phibbs. When Beluncle confronts Henry with the “idea” of Mary, the boy is unable to stand up to him, but, in defeat and humiliation, he flings the more cutting decision at him: He has no intention of entering the business. Thus Beluncle’s dream for his son, who would have belonged to him forever and brought him a girl with money for the business, collapses. The more the world submits evidence that his dreams are ashes, however, the harder he clings to them. All that is needed, he thinks, is a miracle to vindicate and save him, so when Judy Dykes, the crippled sister of Mrs. Truslove, is brought to her feet by the verbal assault of a fanatical newspaper vendor, he launches into a new round of expenditures. Instead of saving him, this miracle completes his ruin. It calls into question the soundness of the Purification, for Judy’s recovery is the prelude to her death, and once she is gone, Mrs. Truslove is free to pursue a new life. When Mr. Beluncle receives word of Judy’s death, he is prompted to make his first and last speech in his new boardroom, to an imaginary board of directors. He begins by denying the death. “It’s a mistake, a dream and—by the way, I’ll give you a thought there, where is the dream when you wake up?”
Everyone in Mr. Beluncle dreams: Judy Dykes that she will walk, Mrs. Truslove that someday something will come of her love for Beluncle, Henry that he will free himself from his father. Each character attempts to force reality to conform to the dream: Judy Dykes by accumulating fashionable shoes; Mrs. Truslove by using the business as a marriage; Henry by loading the slender figure of Mary Phibbs with his many nameless desires. Judy dies, however, and Mrs. Truslove parts with her desire for Beluncle, which has been “exhausted by the imagination.” Henry, who has imitated his father in many respects, observes Mary’s reaction to his declaration that he has lost his faith and realizes for the first time that she is “not an extension of himself, but another human being.” Everyone wakes up to find the dream gone, except for Mr. Beluncle, who uses language to keep it alive.
If the quality of the individual’s dream is the moral topic of the book, then the manner by which language serves the imagination is its aesthetic corollary. Mr. Beluncle’s extraordinary force of personality expresses itself by his physical substance and demeanor but also, and more important, by his words. He is a man who likes to roll words in his mouth like fine chocolates and bestow his thoughts on those around him like a king. Never mind that what he says is absurd, his manner convinces. To Mr. Chilly, one of Beluncle’s admirable traits is his ability to “make a statement and then appear to lean physically upon it.” One thought uttered, he is hoisted to another, word by word exchanging fact for fancy, as if to speak were to make the world anew. To Beluncle, the narrator explains, talking is “a way of turning realities into unrealities,” and placing written messages, such as “Eternity = Now,” next to letters from creditors is typical of his way of doing business. In various other ways, too, the fundamental connection between dreaming and speaking, image and word, is emphasized. One major way is by the character of Henry, who imitates his father in his love of the creative power of language, especially when he is with Mary Phibbs. To her, he tells stories about his family, improved by an artistic juggling of detail, without noticing that she hates them because of “their importance to him and his pride in them”—because, basically, of their self-centeredness. Other characters, too, spin their wishful accounts of the world.
A second, more symbolic way in which the role of language in projecting the dreamworld surfaces is in two characters who exist primarily as “voices”—a technique Pritchett had practiced in Dead Man Leading. One is the youngest Beluncle boy, Leslie, who emerges in the middle of the book to utter the blunt, innermost thoughts of the family, which are ordinarily blurred by Beluncle’s rich discourse; the other is Mary’s sister. Leslie attaches himself to Henry in one key scene in the garden, and Mary’s sister sleeps with her and teases her with the things that Mary is afraid to think directly. Henry and Mary do not, however, give in entirely to this dream voice, as does Harry Johnson. Rather, they hear it along with another one, that of the waking world, and out of the two they harmonize a public voice. Mr. Beluncle, unlike them, is afraid of hearing two voices. He is afraid of the inner voice, because it whispers to him of his own mortality, but he is also afraid of the outer voice, because it denies the complete gratification of his infantile desires. A puritan who has adopted a transcendental explanation of human nature in order to live with himself, he has succeeded, it would seem, in killing one of the voices—exactly which one is moot. It is enough to say that his inner voice has been made public, that his dream is his life. He is thus one-dimensional, hollow, his ego merely an expanding shell.
That Henry hears two voices makes possible a doubling of perspective that will eventually lead him out of egotistic confinement into artistic freedom. Henry is the foil to Beluncle’s charlatanry, the nascent artist of the book, and clearly the autobiographical character; what is especially remarkable about the book is that he never nudges Beluncle out of the limelight. For being an autobiographical novel of sorts, and one incorporating elements of comedy, Mr. Beluncle is surprisingly unconcerned in any overt way with the triumph of son over father, youth over age. In this, his major study of egotism, Pritchett never forgets that the archetypal egotist in his private imagination is his father. If his earliest desire was to surmount him, then he succeeds in this novel, not by assuming center stage himself, not by painting himself large, but by reducing himself, by exercising the artist’s negative capability to create one of the most memorable eccentrics in English literature.
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