V. S. Pritchett

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V. S. Pritchett World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pritchett’s novels never received much praise. One of the earliest is Clare Drummer, much influenced by Joseph Conrad, the famous Polish-born writer of consummate prose and psychological depth. The story line is unfocused and the characters are not fully realized. Shirley Sanz bears the imprint of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), wherein Shirley is a fellow romantic who marries, goes to Spain, has a child, becomes bored with country living, has an affair, and then renounces her lover. Although at times exciting, the novel lacks a sharply focused theme and suffers from too much coincidence of episodes. Nothing Like Leather (1935), based on Pritchett’s years in the leather trade as a tanner, shows growth and development in the writing of his novels. Nonetheless, the main protagonist is not sharply delineated, the plot lacks sustained development, and the theme is not clearly explicated. Dealing as it does with ambition and greed in a technological society, the theme does engage the reader.

Pritchett’s métier almost reaches perfection in his short fiction. Many critics, including Frank Kermode, Irving Howe, and Eudora Welty, praised him as a “pleasure giver,” a writer’s writer, with almost no equal in England in the short-story form. He was outstanding for creating a wide diversity of characters from all classes of people, although mainly from the English middle class. These characters vary, from sailors, divers, and auto racers to blind and neurotic men, frustrated wives, botanists, and artists. Many are ordinary people who live in quiet desperation, some finally sensing their plight and others never aware of their limitations or the reasons for their frustrations.

Pritchett’s themes are many and varied. Infidelity is featured in “The Accompanist,” anger and disappointment is highlighted in “Handsome Is as Handsome Does,” and male domination almost ruins a relationship in “The Wedding.” All of these stories feature unforgettable men and women with whose sensibilities Pritchett empathizes, even while mocking them with gentle wit and irony. Relationships are crucial in a Pritchett story, although few end with the starkness of suicide, as in “The Two Brothers,” one of the most haunting tales in his canon.

A typical story contains two characters at odds with each other, a flashback technique smoothly worked into the central focus, economy of language, well-defined incident, artful description, and a well-disguised simplicity. Relationships are introduced in medias res (in the middle of things) and often left unresolved. One of the most telling characteristics of Pritchett’s short fiction is his use of the Joycean “epiphany,” a moment of sudden realization or insight.

Through ironic and witty dialogue, Pritchett created cameo characters, people who linger with the reader long after the story is finished. His satire is genial and kind, Horatian rather than Juvenalian, which is vicious and unsparing. Often the reader is left with a clear empathy and identification with the characters and a realization that Pritchett is describing all of humanity and its foibles, some almost despicable and others stupid and self-centered; yet Pritchett is always gentle in his characterizations.

Although Pritchett’s gentility permeates all of his fiction, he cannot be accused of a Dickensian sentimentality. Anger plays a central role in many of his stories, as does ironic backlash, especially in stories such as “A Debt of Honour” and “A Fig Tree.”

A visible presence in much of Pritchett’s short fiction is one that resembles the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, a medical doctor who relinquished his practice to become a writer. Like him, Pritchett shows a sharp power of observation and a bittersweet wit. “The Wheelbarrow” is the story of a near-seduction by Evans, a local preacher, who is helping Miss Freshwater’s niece to empty an entire house of the flotsam and jetsam left by...

(The entire section is 3,676 words.)