Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541

All three of them important writers, the Powys brothers are often confused with one another. John Cowper Powys, the eldest, outlived T. F. and Llewelyn by some years. Perhaps predictably, his distinctive quality was that of presenting twentieth century ideas and dilemmas in what is essentially a nineteenth century mode of expression. A follower of Fyodor Doestevski and Thomas Hardy, John Cowper Powys employed the idioms of English Romanticism in exploring the nature of psychological compulsion and metaphysical isolation.

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In this novel, Powys presents against a contemporary setting some of his ideas on the mystical power that shapes all men’s actions. The hero, Wolf Solent, attempts to find himself and his place in the universe, but he is constantly caught between the dictates of his own nature and the conventions of the world in which he lives. This world is not merely conventional, for Powys’ Dorset is a mystic place of powerful spirits affecting human beings and conducive to strange nocturnal wanderings as well as a community haunted by incest, disturbing graves, and sinister suggestions of murder.

The powerful spirits are reflections of the animal nature of human beings, forces springing from man that defy his best efforts to impose a rational order on himself and his world. Many of the names of the characters, such as Wolf Solent and Jason Otter, suggest this idea of the animal nature of man. At times, Powys had his characters dwell at great length on their own personalities and on the symbolic nature of all they have discovered in experience. Despite the turgidity of some of these reflections and the loose structure of the novel, WOLF SOLENT is not without forceful appeal. For many readers, it is too prolix to carry deep tragic meaning; for others, it is a powerful demonstration of man’s essential loneliness and lack of control.

A novel of introspection, WOLF SOLENT is filled with long soliloquies and ruminations, which many critics have found to be overwritten. These excursions into Wolf’s consciousness, however, do succeed in establishing the dimensions of his struggle. Revealed are the dualistic tensions: his father’s passive receptivity and his mother’s assertiveness; Christie’s spirituality and Gerda’s sensuality; his need to live a life of moral responsibility and “objectivity” and his equally pressing desire to escape from and aestheticize that life. These tensions are presented against the more fundamental dualism of nature and civilization. Powys, like his protagonist, is an animist and nature mystic. Wolf yearns for absorption into natural processes; he feels the natural world’s unfathomable workings in his unconscious, and he longs to relate these to his moral experience.

Solent’s original philosophy changes as he develops the power of his will “to forget and enjoy.” This power of will, which includes his power of contemplation, enables him to cease struggling against the dualism of good and evil, since he can now “will” himself to be good. The external action of the novel ends on a tragic note, but the psychological processes which these actions have engendered in Wolf clearly leave him more whole and more human than he was at first, when the pathetic sight of “the man on the Waterloo steps” plunged him into morbidness and confusion.

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