Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3676
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 late Miss Freshwater. Evans is hypnotized by a lovely wheelbarrow and is in turn repulsed and attracted by the niece. He lusts for the wheelbarrow rather than the woman, and when she repulses him and gives him this coveted prize he minimizes its value but inwardly is ecstatic (his ersatz climax) over becoming the proud possessor. Evans never senses an epiphany; the niece does, and the story ends as she is leaving after emptying the house. She passes the tent where Evans is speaking and his cant reverberates at the story’s end.
In almost every story there is ironic humor fusing character, episode, and theme. “The Key to My Heart” portrays a young man whose father owned a bakery but who died with many of the accounts recorded only in his head. Typical of many of Pritchett’s stories, this one is told by the son. The young man is given the unenviable job of collecting a fairly large debt owed the bakery by a Mrs. Brackett, who in turn vilifies and pacifies the young man but does not pay him. There is much humor in the story as Pritchett satirizes the rich when, for example, this woman and her lover race their expensive cars around the fields after each other in their love-hate relationship. Because the baker’s son, narrating the story, unsuspectingly helps the lover to escape, Mrs. Brackett finds out and penalizes him by paying all the other tradesmen their bills but deliberately overlooking the baker’s bill. Although the reader may have cause to despise this affluent woman and dub the narrator a fool, the irony and satire of the story provide the insulation needed to empathize with both main figures.
Another facet of Pritchett’s stories that often deal with basic relationships between mates or lovers concerns a May-December liaison. “On the Edge of the Cliff” presents Harry, more than seventy years of age, and Rowena, in her twenties, who delight in their amour. Harry still has the capacity to love, an important theme. To prove his energy for life and for love, he goes swimming on a particularly cold day and emerges from the sea showing his sinewy body. This exposure emphasizes his age to Rowena, but later, going to bed with her “Ancient Mariner,” as she says, the earlier disrobing causes no diminution of their relationship. Still another delightful story, “The Skeleton,” features an ancient man, George Clark, a crotchety bachelor who is a rank narcissist. He becomes ill when he refuses to dress adequately in the cold English winter and is tended by a younger woman who has in the past ruined George’s favorite painting. He experiences his moment of epiphany, Pritchett’s favorite technique, when he realizes that the woman who supposedly betrayed him, and who is riddled with faults and is growing old, has helped him. He who thought he was fearless and needed no one becomes aware of the need for and the beauty of another soul. Pritchett’s motif of the epiphany reverberates in his short fiction, and the Chekhovian irony is transmuted into an English setting and an English sensibility.
In the final analysis, Pritchett’s urbane wit and charm imbued his odd, eccentric collection of characters with a humanity and warmth that remain a hallmark of this brilliant teller of tales.
“When My Girl Comes Home”
First published: 1961 (collected in The Pritchett Century, 1997)
Type of work: Short story
A young girl, believed to be suffering in a Japanese prison camp, returns to surprise and disappoint the neighbors, making them question their moral attitudes during World War II.
“When My Girl Comes Home,” Pritchett’s favorite story, uses a disjointed narrative and shifting ambiguities to reflect the theme of the story. Hilda Johnson was the darling of Hincham Street, London, when she married an Indian and went East. She was reported to be incarcerated in a Japanese war camp under brutal conditions. For two years the entire street forged together and, despite the stone wall of several nations’ bureaucracies, persisted in obtaining information about her—and about her final release. Returning home, she is not pale or wan but well-fed and sleek, even sprightly. Hincham Street is shocked to hear that she married a Japanese officer and thus escaped the deprivations and suffering of a foreigner. Mrs. Johnson had been sewing for years and saving money for her girl’s homecoming; Mrs. Johnson becomes the moral center of the street.
The story portrays a woman who must have used her wiles (Pritchett is vague about many details and the reader must reconstruct the evidence) not only in Japan but also during her return trip, during which she met two Westerners who showered gifts on her. Gloster, one of the men, promises to find her and take her and her mother away to France. Gloster never comes. The tale, containing a multitude of characters, careens from one character to another, but the limited narrator is Harry Fraser, who provides the reader with fragmentary accounts. A real prisoner of the Japanese, Bill Williams, survived through all kinds of deal-making: The reader believes that Hilda did as well. These two form an odd union, involved perhaps in illegalities. Eventually, Williams pursues Hilda in a number of ways, then ransacks her apartment and disappears. Hilda, too, after her mother’s death, leaves her home. Her whereabouts are unknown until one day when the neighbors receive a photograph of her and two men; one of them is Gloster, who has written a book not about Hilda’s experiences in Japan but about Hincham Street.
Hilda’s homecoming, long awaited by the neighbors, disappoints them and causes them to face their moral views of the war, as Hilda did not when she married a Japanese officer. Many on Hincham Street inflicted self-injury, committed perjury, or escaped their duty to serve during World War II in duplicitous ways. Whether in a pub, a chance conversation in the street, or a gathering of friends, the war always paralyzed the citizens when they came to the closed door of their conscience. Hilda and Bill were not the only ones to compromise (to survive in Japan); the people of Hincham Street had done the same then (during the war) and now (after the war) in refusing to confront their moral dilemmas and conscience. Pritchett’s theme of illusion and reality both during and after the war is portrayed with ambiguities. The shifting relationships of the characters do not permit the reader to grasp any clear resolution. The ideal symbol of Hilda is shattered on her return, and the symbol of her mother as a center of moral gravity is splintered when Mrs. Johnson dies. Hincham Street remains shorn of ideals and discomfited by moral festering.
First published: 1969 (collected in Blind Love, and Other Stories, 1969)
Type of work: Short story
A lawyer and his housekeeper, both scarred, brandish their disabilities like weapons and eventually, through loss of pride, find mutual understanding and love.
“Blind Love” is one of Pritchett’s most poignant and compelling short stories. Through an almost unnoticeable flashback technique the reader perceives a full delineation of the character of Mr. Armitage, a lawyer who has been blind for twenty years, and Mrs. Johnson, a secretary/housekeeper, who has a huge scar extending from the neck down across her chest. Armitage, who has a house in the country, is wealthy; he travels regularly into London to carry on his business affairs. For two years, these two have led a quiet but rather satisfying life. Mrs. Johnson goes regularly to church. Both have been divorced by their mates: Armitage’s wife departed because of her husband’s blindness, while Mrs. Johnson’s husband, on their wedding night, was disgusted with her unsightly scar. Mrs. Johnson had not told her husband of this disfigurement, conceding in retrospect that she had been blinded by love. Armitage has instructed Mrs. Johnson that nothing is ever to be disturbed. One day, however, while in the garden, he is tripped by his dog near the swimming pool; he falls into the water and is rescued. In her kind attempt to help her employer, Mrs. Johnson enters his bedroom and starts to help him obtain dry clothes. She breaks the cardinal rule, and Armitage demands that she get out and leave him alone. Mrs. Johnson, rebuffed by his rudeness, decides that since she has not enjoyed the country she should leave Armitage’s employ. Shortly thereafter, Armitage apologizes and presses sexual attention on Mrs. Johnson, and they make love. Still defensive, Mrs. Johnson considers the lovemaking an act of revenge against her former husband. At this point neither person’s handicap is a barrier to sex, one of the ironies for which Pritchett was famous.
Throughout the story, religious imagery prevails. Both Armitage and Mrs. Johnson fall into the pool, experiencing a kind of baptism. Armitage makes Mrs. Johnson rub spittle and dirt on his eyes to cure his blindness, just as Christ cured the blind man in Scripture. Both characters have wounds. There is an attempt at faith healing when Armitage goes to Mr. Smith, who preaches the spiritual life but who is obese and has two of everything. When Mrs. Johnson falls into the pool, is rescued, and cries that Mr. Smith saw her sunbathing near the pool nude and perceived her as a “plate of liver,” she and Armitage experience a moment of epiphany. The story ends with the two aware that they no longer need to view their handicaps as weapons. Although both have been physically and emotionally scarred by fate, their defects have led to self-understanding and to a love for each other. Both have lost their pride as they sense their mutual need. They wed, the reader believes, and go to Italy, where Mrs. Johnson becomes the eyes for both of them as they visit churches, museums, and architectural wonders.
This story emphasizes the flawed marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whose union is based on inequality and routine; it is contrasted with the love of Armitage and Mrs. Johnson, who both rise above their physical disabilities to experience a richness and freshness of love beyond the merely physical. The images of flawed human nature are obvious, but the bittersweetness of tone changes to the quiet joy of acceptance at the end.
“The Camberwell Beauty”
First published: 1974 (collected in The Camberwell Beauty, and Other Stories, 1974)
Type of work: Short story
A former antique dealer attempts the seduction of a woman married to an older man and finally separates the worlds of art and reality.
“The Camberwell Beauty,” the title piece of a collection, is one of Pritchett’s mature, haunting tales. The setting is London’s antiques world and becomes a metaphor of the world at large. The antique dealers would give almost anything to possess their own particular object of art; they brood on these acquisitions for their entire lives. Isabel is the Camberwell beauty who yokes together August, her uncle and an ivory collector, with Pliny, an elder bachelor who lusts for, among other artifacts, Dresden figures. The narrator, a former antiques dealer, intrudes into this world and presents the reader with a host of men who, although specialists in their own antiques, are ordinary people.
Isabel is eventually discovered by the narrator to be Pliny’s wife, although she is simply another art acquisition by Pliny, who uses other women to satisfy his lust. The narrator, with unwitting humor, attempts to seduce this young woman. She is often left alone in an empty shop, with only the sound of drumbeats to indicate that something is amiss. Isabel, unaware of her manipulation, is made to dress like a soldier and to bang a drum to keep burglars away. When the narrator discovers Pliny’s ruse, he begins to attempt his seduction. Pritchett’s bizarre details provide irony. Throughout many attempts to lure Isabel, the narrator fails. When the narrator taunts Isabel with Pliny’s being a husband in name only, Isabel replies that he is indeed a good lover because he likes to take off her clothes, look at her, and tell her that she is his most precious possession. In this revelation, Pritchett is satirizing both the naïveté of Isabel and her function as a work of art. At the same time, the narrator, like Pliny, is perceiving the Camberwell beauty as an unconsummated sex object. In his final attempt to win the girl, the narrator is discovered by Pliny and a tobacconist. The narrator feebly insists that he came to offer Pliny a piece of Dresden. Both Pliny and his wife say that they have no interest in Dresden, and the narrator emerges into the sodium light of a London street, aware that the artificial light reflects only the unreality of people. Pritchett is suggesting that there is cruelty, cant, and hypocrisy in the people who surround themselves with beautiful antiques. The world of art may uplift the spirit, but the people who collect rare antiques are commercial vendors who devalue art with their mean acquisitive methods. Pritchett is suggesting that the world, too, may lust after art and overlook the real.
Seemingly, no moment of self-awareness occurs in any of the participants in this drama of the art world. Nothing has changed. Isabel symbolically descends by becoming a work of art to Pliny and a prey for the narrator. No one is illuminated except perhaps Isabel, who remains true to her marital vows. Pritchett’s ironies are at play, but at the end the human comedy continues as the narrator, the intruder, is ejected.
First published: 1970 (collected in Complete Collected Stories, 1990)
Type of work: Short story
An educated woman, having married into wealth and then divorced, and a cattle farmer, opposing change, resolve their differences and marry.
“The Wedding,” set in a provincial English countryside, is the occasion for a counterpoint between the educated and the rustic, the return of a sophisticated woman to her hamlet, a wedding that ignites a series of developments, and a dénouement that satisfies the major participants. With vivid descriptions, a sly humor, and a portrayal of various people and their foibles, Pritchett enfolds the tale of Mrs. Christine Jackson, who left the town when she married a wealthy man but returned as a teacher at a local college. She encourages Tom Fletcher, a forty-year-old widower, to permit Mary, his daughter, to go on to the university since the young woman is brilliant. Tom demurs, because after Flo, his other daughter, is married, he will be alone—and besides, Mary will need only the rudiments of running a household when she marries.
The story is developed through a number of narrators. At the very beginning, Tom is talking to his friend Ted and makes a number of rude and sexually belittling remarks about Mrs. Jackson. At the wedding, Mrs. Jackson talks with a number of various people, mostly common folk. The mood, as is usual at weddings, is festive as the guests remember their own weddings with a mixture of hope and sadness.
Pritchett’s dialogue is witty and provincial as Tom gives away his daughter. The wedding feast is Oriental, and after the guests have eaten, there takes place a local custom of lassoing of women by men. Most of the women accept the sport with humor. When Mrs. Jackson begins to leave, Tom urges her to remain, but she says she must leave. Suddenly, Tom lassoes her and she loses her hat, her balance, and her dignity as the rope pinches her waist. Her student Mary is aghast. Suddenly, Mrs. Jackson asserts the initiative as she pulls the rope out of Tom’s hands and summarily and angrily departs. As she leaves, someone shouts that Mrs. Jackson is leaving with Tom’s rope.
Overwhelmed by embarrassment and angry that she has been exposed to this unbecoming rural custom, she stops her car until she regains composure. When she returns home, Mary appears, distraught and ashamed of her father’s action. Mary says that she has run away. Mrs. Jackson insists, lying, that she found the lassoing rather a compliment and, urging Mary to return home, drives her back. Tom has been scouring the countryside for Mary. As Mrs. Jackson leaves, he shouts that he will see her tomorrow for his rope.
When Tom appears the next day, Mrs. Jackson indignantly tells him that she is not cattle. Yet she agrees that it was, after all, only a country junket. Pritchett uses his usual irony when Tom says that he wants to make a deal: If Mrs. Jackson returns to the farm, he will do whatever she wishes about Mary. He begins to fondle her, and she demurs, but Tom insists. Finally, Mrs. Jackson asks him to lock the door. The schoolmistress leaves her job, sells her house, and marries Jackson, and all three of them are seen driving around the countryside.
The rope is a metaphor with multiple levels. It reminds Mrs. Jackson of her youth when hope was high and spirits were carefree. Now it is a symbol of limits and indignities. Yet it is a sign of selection of her by Tom, who separates her from the others. It is, finally, a mark of her grasping of fate, for she frees herself of the rope and commandeers Tom’s possession. It is also the occasion of their meeting, during which there is a compromise and a proposal.
There is great fun and vivacity in the tale. The structure reveals men discussing women irreverently, Mrs. Jackson’s soliloquies, and conversations with country bumpkins. Mrs. Jackson’s divorce is lamented and her intellectual endowments ridiculed by Tom, who ironically later marries her. She might have been lassoed, but it is Tom who eventually is lassoed out of his prejudices and limitations as he permits his daughter to leave the traditional ways. Pritchett in this story again reveals an uncanny ability to analyze people, to laugh at them, and finally to convey their sense of dignity and geniality. His merging of the educated and the untutored brings thoughtful pleasure to the reader. The rope brings to Mrs. Jackson and Tom Fletcher their moment of epiphany.
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