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About this book

In what ways does the opening of a novel relate to the narrative that unfolds from it? What are the different approaches to close reading a page of prose fiction? How does reading a text for a second time affect our understanding of the significance of its opening?

In this unique book, Peter Childs discusses the opening lines of 24 widely-studied literary texts from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. These analyses amount to both an overview of modes of fiction over the last 300 years and also a guide to techniques of close reading. The extracts are taken from the work of novelists ranging from Jane Austen to Salman Rushdie. This stimulating and illuminating book will be a useful text for undergraduates studying the novel and involved in critical appreciation and close textual analysis.

Texts discussed: Robinson Crusoe, Tristram Shandy, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Silas Marner, Tess of the D'urbervilles, The Turn of the Screw, Heart of Darkness, The Good Soldier, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, A Passage to India, Mrs Dalloway, Brave New World, The Road to Wigan Pier, Goodbye to Berlin, Under the Volcano, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Bloody Chamber, Shame, and The Buddha of Suburbia.

Table of Contents

Introducing the Text

This is a book about openings: the author’s opening of the text, the reader’s opening of the text, and the critical ‘opening up’ of the text. In line with the quotation above from Ian McEwan, the chapters that follow this introduction are very much concerned with using the opening of a narrative as one way to make sense of ‘what follows’, as well as using what follows as a way to make sense of the opening. It is this double process that the book discusses by looking at the opening to 24 commonly studied texts, 22 of which are novels.
Peter Childs

Chapter 1. Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Before analysing the passage above, I would like to explain briefly why this book on Reading Fiction begins with Defoe’s novel. Despite the claims of several women writers such as Aphra Behn (especially Oronooko, or the Royal Slave, 1688) and Mary de la Rivière Manley (for example, The Adventures of Rivella, 1714), one of the most widely cited critical works on eighteenth-century fiction asserts that: ‘Robinson Crusoe is certainly the first novel in the sense that it is the first fictional narrative in which an ordinary person’s daily activities are the centre of continuous literary attention.’ (Watt, 1965: 74) Accordingly, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is a suitable text with which to begin this study of openings because it may be seen as the first realist novel, and its beginning is a useful example of the features of the genre. It is evident that Defoe is first of all determined to persuade the reader of the actual existence of Crusoe. Defoe’s name does not appear on the 1719 title-page, and a Preface places him in the position of editor to Crusoe’s author. This ‘editor’ writes that he ‘believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it’, a remarkable claim with which to introduce the ‘first novel’, but one which indicates a main principle of ‘realism’: verisimilitude, or truth to life.
Daniel Defoe

Chapter 2. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67)

This information concerning his conception is told to Tristram Shandy by his Uncle Toby. Indeed, critics have remarked that the ‘life and opinions’ of the book’s title are in many ways not Tristram’s own, but based on his Uncle Toby’s life and on his father’s opinions. In terms of content, the opening, we later find out, deals with the moment Tristram was conceived, at an instant when his mother suddenly asked her husband if he had wound the clock, which he always did on the same night each month when they had sex. In terms of form, the opening poses clearly for the reader the question of when a life begins, which is as complicated as the question of when a book begins. Sterne is also concerned here, if very playfully, with the philosophical problem of when a human being becomes a human being: at conception, at birth, at first consciousness or, even, at maturity? To start an autobiography at ‘the start’ is to begin where? Similarly, the same question is posed by a recent memoir, Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), from the other end of a lifespan. Morrison is not sure whether he should think the last time he saw his father was when he saw his father’s corpse, or saw him before he died, or before he became ill with cancer, or when his father last seemed ‘completely himself’: fully the man Morrison had known. Tristram Shandy will actually take over a hundred pages to get himself born, so punctilious is he in starting from the beginning of his life: comically raising the problem of cause and effect, in life, in narrative, and in logic. Perhaps, in order to understand anything at all, we need to know its circumstances and what preceded it, and in order properly to understand those circumstances we need to know their circumstances and what preceded them, and so on. Similarly, in order to understand who Tristram Shandy is, perhaps we need to know about his parents, and their parents, and so on, stretching back to lives and circumstances far beyond the knowledge of anyone living. It is best to stop this discussion here as otherwise, like many critics of Sterne’s novel, I will soon be repeating the digressive style of the novel, which itself makes the point well that endless circumlocution is inevitable as soon as one attempts, foolishly, to explain anything fully, or perhaps even adequately. At such a pace, as many critics have noted of Tristram Shandy, the narration of a life proceeds more slowly than the life itself.
Laurence Sterne

Chapter 3. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

The opening chapter of Austen’s novel, as with several of her others, establishes the story that will unfold over the hundreds of pages that follow. Aside from the opening 16 lines, and the closing paragraph, the approximately 85-line chapter is composed almost entirely of untagged dialogue, with only two reporting clauses: ‘replied his wife’ (l.30), and then later ‘replied he’. In other words, with few exceptions the characters speak directly to the reader throughout. As there is so little description (we know almost nothing about this couple with regard to their physical appearance or surroundings), the chapter is perhaps most concerned with the revelation of character: by its close the reader has a firm grasp of Mr and Mrs Bennet’s personalities and of their relationship. Austen does this not through diegesis, allowing the narrator to explain to the reader, but through mimesis, the direct speech of the characters. Which is to say, the reader is shown the characters and their dialogue, not told about them. Austen’s technique is essentially realist: like Defoe she aims to offer up a mirror to the world, but hers is a markedly different world from that of Robinson Crusoe. Pride and Prejudice features characters, language, and a spatial and temporal setting familiar to its bourgeois readers. As with most other realist novels, the time is the contemporary, the place ordinary, the people from the middle classes, the ideology secular, the language everyday, and the narrator above the characters in a ‘hierarchy of discourse’ that allows the third-person narrator to be unquestionable as well as omniscient. Most importantly, Pride and Prejudice presents itself as transparently representative of the author’s society, and of the society of its contemporary readers (for example, contrast this with Shakespearean tragedy which uses poetry, the nobility and locations usually distant in time and place).
Jane Austen

Chapter 4. Frankenstein (1818)

Mary Shelley’s book opens with a frame narration which, as it is in the form of a letter, recalls the earlier epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson (for example, Clarissa (1747–8)) and others. Before the book’s main chapters begin, there are four letters written by the man who records Victor Frankenstein’s account of his life, Captain Walton. These are addressed to Walton’s sister, Margaret Saville. The letters are sent by Walton as he travels nearer to the North Pole: the first three before he even meets Frankenstein, and the fourth after. The Swiss scientist Frankenstein has been led to the Arctic by the ‘monster’, the reader later learns, because his creation is ‘impassive’ to the cold. From Shelley’s point of view, the bleak Arctic represents the same sublime (but treacherous) Romantic landscape as do the Alps in poems such as her husband Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ or Xanadu in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. The frame is particularly interesting because it is written in a different form from the main narrative. Shelley chooses to use the epistolary convention of authors such as Richardson for this preface before the descriptive and digressive first-person account of Frankenstein takes over the novel. This technique itself seems to hand over the novel from one older style to another newer one, just as the narrative seems to switch between Gothic and realist conventions. After the rise of the realist novel to express the new world of mercantile capitalism and bourgeois individualism, epitomised in Robinson Crusoe, Gothic arose according to David Punter ‘at the stage when the bourgeoisie, having to all intents and purposes gained social power, began to try to understand the conditions and history of their own ascent … Gothic is thus a form of response to the emergence of a middle-class-dominated capitalist society’. Punter therefore positions Gothic as the flipside of realism, and the blend of the two in Shelley’s novel can certainly be viewed in terms of many oppositions in the narrative, including that between Frankenstein and his ‘monster’. Punter concludes that Gothic emerges because, with the
coming of industry, the move towards the city, the regularisation of patterns of labour in the late eighteenth century … the individual comes to see him- or herself at the mercy of forces which in fundamental ways elude understanding. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising to find the emergence of a literature whose key motifs are paranoia, manipulation, and injustice, and whose central project is understanding the inexplicable, the taboo, the irrational. (Punter, 1996: 112)
Mary Shelley

Chapter 5. Jane Eyre (1847)

Like Great Expectations and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Jane Eyre can be called a Bildungsroman. This German term denotes a kind of autobiographical fiction that came to the fore in the late eighteenth century — the seminal example is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796) — concerned with an individual’s education. Such novels are stories of growing up, maturation and social development, most often in the first person, and usually confessional in tone. In Jane Eyre, the form of the narrative is the common one in Bildungsromans of a reflection on personal growth from childhood through to adolescence and beyond, told with the experience of adulthood. Jane will thus reveal not just ‘her story’, but the events that have made the child at the start of the book into the adult who addresses the reader.
Charlotte Brontë

Chapter 6. Wuthering Heights (1847)

The opening to Wuthering Heights introduces a number of oppositions and contrasts. There is that between the Heights and the Grange, between 1801 and 1500, between misanthropy and sociability, between a heaven and a hell, and between Heathcliff and the narrator Lockwood. This last is not quickly perceived by Lockwood, who considers himself and Heathcliff ‘a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us’ (l.6). Lockwood is a city-dweller seeking rest from ‘the stir of society’ (ll.4–5) and imagines himself to be similar to his landlord. He soon finds, however, that his desire for temporary seclusion is different from Heathcliff’s refusal to ‘allow anyone to inconvenience me’ (l.20). Lockwood has called on his landlord ‘as soon as possible’ (l.15) after his arrival, suggesting a tendency to socialise at odds with his stated feeling that Heathcliff is the ‘solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with’ (l.2). Heathcliff is indeed ‘solitary’, but in a different sense, and Lockwood soon finds himself ‘interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself’ (ll.26–7).
Emily Brontë

Chapter 7. Great Expectations (1861)

There are several clues to the novel’s major concerns in this opening. To begin with, the issue of identity is present in several ways. There is Pip’s reduction of his two names to one syllable, his abandoned status as an orphan, and the fact that he does not even know what his parents or his brothers looked like. He is in many respects a child cut off from his roots, in family, heritage and language. Towards the end of these opening paragraphs, two important things happen. First, Pip comes to consciousness of the composition of the world (‘this … was the churchyard … that … the marshes … that … the river … that … the sea’: (ll.26–35) and his own place within it: ‘My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain … that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.’ (ll.25–36; my emphasis). It is also at this moment, when Pip comes to his first real understanding of his identity, that the escaped convict Magwitch appears with the command, ‘Tell us your name!’(l.49) It is of course the interference of Magwitch in Pip’s life that will cause him to change his identity from blacksmith’s boy to London gentleman, to grow from this barely self-aware seed or ‘pip’ into the sophisticated narrator who recounts the story.
Charles Dickens

Chapter 8. Silas Marner (1861)

In terms of style, this opening paragraph usefully illustrates Eliot’s rhythmic, graceful sentences. Several of these contain asides or passing comments after dashes, but the sense of continuity is also evident in the constancy of subject: wandering men. Each sentence follows clearly from the previous one as the narrator guides us through a number of points about these outsiders and the attitudes adopted to them by shepherds, farmers, and other peasants. The sentences are generally long — one exceeds a hundred words — and contain several subclauses, but they are not difficult to follow. Unlike the convoluted sentences found in the late style of Henry James, for example, Eliot’s contain more progression than digression and the reader is in no real danger of losing track of them. What is apparent, however, is the presence of an all-knowing, confident, authoritative narrator. This is usually taken to be Eliot’s voice, as Jane Austen’s narrators are often taken to be the author herself, but this in no way prevents the reader from assessing the kind of narrator and the style of narrative present in the novel. Typical of realism, Eliot adopts a ‘hierarchy of discourse’, which is to say that instead of speaking in the first person as an individual with her own views amongst the views of others, she uses a third-person narrator whose opinions are authoritative, whose statements are truthful, and whose knowledge, reliability and trustworthiness are taken for granted — which cannot be said of any of the characters in the novel. In other words, the narrator sits above the rest of the figures in the novel; unlike them she is omnipresent, omniscient, and even omnipotent: the author/narrator as God. In the world of the novel, she may contradict any statement, or even thought, made by any character, but because the narrator is not one of them, none of the characters will ever pass comment on, or be aware of, her mediation of the story. Thus the narrator is located on a different plane from the characters or from the reader and author: nothing can be known of the narrator and no interaction can take place because she, or he, is just a disembodied voice. While the material is transmuted into the genre of the novel, the model used here is, broadly speaking, that of journalism and historiography, in which an authoritative voice explains events in the lives of others in a similarly unbiased and truthful way, except that, in these other forms of writing, the person speaking in the text is recognised as the author, and this is someone identifiable and accountable. However, in realist fiction, the figure of the omniscient narrator has become so familiar as a device that it does not occur to the reader to ask who the narrator is, unless the narrator is identified with the author. The narrator is both all-knowing and completely unknown.
George Eliot

Chapter 9. Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)

As with Hardy’s next and last novel, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’Urbervilles begins at a defining moment without which the subsequent events might never have happened. It is in this sense that Hardy’s beginning is the origin, or at least a starting-point, of Tess’s story. The opening provides the catalyst for Tess Durbeyfield’s transformation into Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the importance of which is conveyed in the names themselves. The surname Durbeyfield suggests a land-based family, while d’Urberville implies either a family of the urban and the town (ville is, of course, still French for town) or a transition to the city from the village, which is a late medieval word from the French village, and derived like many other words from the Latin villa (a villein was a peasant personally bound to a lord to whom dues and services were paid in return for land). In this way Hardy signals the ‘ache of modernism’ (Chapter 19) that many critics consider the main theme of the book: a transition from the communal life of the land towards the world of the anonymous teeming crowds of the city.
Thomas Hardy

Chapter 10. The Turn of the Screw (1898)

The transcribed manuscript that forms the core of The Turn of the Screw is divided into 24 parts, like a day divided into hours. However, this story, which constitutes the vast majority of the text, is preceded by a framing introduction, or prologue, the beginning of which is excerpted above. This opening creates suspense but also introduces a number of levels between the reader and the principal story. The tale alluded to by Douglas in the opening above will form the main narrative of The Turn of the Screw, but the story will not be an account of events that happened to him: he will read aloud to the gathering from a manuscript sent to him by a woman, his sister’s governess, before she died 20 years ago. This introduction is therefore at several removes from the main body of the story: the first unnamed narrator, who is telling the story to the reader, is recounting a narrative he has heard from another character, Douglas, who says he is reading the manuscript of a third person, the unnamed governess, now long dead. The first narrator later divulges that Douglas himself is now dead and that his own narrative is ‘from an exact transcript’ that he has made of the manuscript that Douglas read to him (or her — the sex of the framing narrator is not established, though most readers assume, and the story arguably implies, it is a man). Another key point to remember is that the first narrator does not return at the close of the governess’s account. The framing narrative takes the form of a prologue but no epilogue, of an introduction but no conclusion; like much else in this book, it raises questions but provides no answers.
Henry James

Chapter 11. Heart of Darkness (1899–1902)

Conrad’s novella is an inscrutable play of language: words are repeated and reinflected throughout the text in a way that leaves the reader unsure of their final meanings. Certain words and phrases are reiterated even in this opening section, such as the ‘brooding gloom’ (ll. 14, 22, 45 and 51) which is opposed to the ‘luminous’ (ll.9 and 21) river. Thus the major opposition, between the ‘light’ (associated with Europe) and the ‘dark’ (linked with Africa) is established from the outset. The title itself is fundamentally ambiguous and has been the subject of numerous interpretations, suggesting it refers to Africa, Europe, the Belgian Empire, colonialism, the unconscious, or to the human heart. The number of words and phrases which refer to either ‘dark’ or ‘light’ imagery in just this opening 50 lines is notably high, and each reference refines the metaphorical importance attaching to the two terms, leaving expressions like ‘brilliance’, ‘radiant fabric’ and ‘immensity of unstained light’ (ll.40–3) without the straightforward positive associations they would usually have.
Joseph Conrad

Chapter 12. The Good Soldier (1915)

Ford’s book opens with one of the most striking but also enigmatic statements in English literature. The narrator, John Dowell, asserts that this is ‘the saddest story’ (Ford’s preferred title for the novel) he has ever heard. However, the story he recounts is one in which he has participated, not one he has simply heard. The novel’s irony and pathos rests on the fact that Dowell has not understood or even realised the truth of what has happened to him (with ‘English people of whom, till today … I knew nothing whatever’: ll.9–11). He has ‘heard’ the story only in the sense that someone else has told him what has ‘really been going on’. Dowell’s misleading narratorial style, which will characterise the twists and turns of the rest of the book, is also present on this first page when he mentions his wife’s death (ll.22–4), which in fact had nothing to do with her heart, but was by suicide (p.115). He addresses the reader directly (for example, ‘As you will probably expect’: l.47) and qualifies his opinions (for example, ‘This is, I believe, a state of things’: l.8) in a conversational manner that is always likely to undermine itself (for example, ‘I don’t mean to say that’: l.14).
Ford Madox Ford

Chapter 13. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Joyce’s first novel, following the publication of the short story collection Dubliners in 1914, was published in the year of the Easter Rising, 1916, when Irish Independence was declared, temporarily, by nationalists who saw their opportunity for liberation while Britain was fighting the Great War. Joyce seemed only to publish his novels in momentous years: Ulysses appeared in 1922, the year Ireland became independent, and Finnegan’s Wake was published in the year the Second World War started.
James Joyce

Chapter 14. The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922)

Sinclair’s novella covers the life of her heroine from her birth in 1845 to her death just before the Great War. It is a story of female self-sacrifice, according to Jean Radford in her introduction to the Virago edition, but there is an equally striking way of interpreting the main theme of the text that will have occurred to many readers, and which I will focus on here.
May Sinclair

Chapter 15. A Passage to India (1924)

The opening chapter to A Passage to India is only a page and a half in length and yet most of the major preoccupations of the narrative are presaged and illustrated in these initial four paragraphs. Forster’s novel begins in mid-sentence, in the sense that the usual order of the major and minor clauses has been reversed. Instead of writing ‘The city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary … except for the Marabar caves’, Forster immediately introduces the central location of the novel and also their chief characteristic: that the caves are exceptional, mysterious, out of the ordinary. It is a common feature of modernist writing (cf. the chapter on Mrs Dalloway) to start in media res, but Forster’s approach throughout this short chapter is transitional, in-between experimental and traditional techniques, because it resembles a realist style (a third-person omniscient narrator introducing the reader systematically to the story’s setting) but is heavily symbolic and uses the devices of unusual sentence construction and of description by absence or denial (e.g. ‘there is no painting’: l.14 and ‘It is no city …’: l.27). In this strongly visual introductory two pages the narrator establishes a number of contrasts with which the story is to be concerned. So, the first sentence insists that Chandrapore has ‘nothing extraordinary’ but the distant caves, which will curiously not be mentioned again until the very end of the chapter. The opposition here is clearly between the city which presents ‘nothing’ (as the litany of negatives in the first paragraph amply details) and the ‘extraordinary’ caves. These two words will occur again and again in the book to express Forster’s twin beliefs that existence is astonishing and ultimately meaningless. At the heart of the book’s metaphysical concerns is an echoing hollowness which reverberates throughout the narrative — and the caves are the chief symbol of this nullity or vacancy.
E. M. Forster

Chapter 16. Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Mrs Dalloway, Woolf’s first indisputably modernist novel, throws the reader in at the deep end. The form of the opening sentence, which is also the first paragraph, is unremarkable and in most respects similar to the beginning of many realist novels. It is only its immediacy which is striking, and taken in the context of the following paragraphs, the reader realises that there is not going to be any conventional description of Clarissa Dalloway, no simple account of who she is, of her family, or of the house where she lives; not even a direct explanation of why she wants ‘the flowers’. Similarly, in the second paragraph, Lucy is mentioned but not introduced, and while the reader learns that doors are to be taken off their hinges, presumably by Rumpelmayer’s men, it is not clear why. The reader immediately has several questions, and it will be many pages before these are answered, but in the meantime the reader will move in and out of the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, as well as others, gathering information through the thoughts and impressions of one hot day in June 1923. In other words, Woolf chooses to ‘plunge’ (l.7) the reader into the novel just as Mrs Dalloway ‘plunged’ into the open air at Bourton (l.10). As in ‘life’ (l.57), which is the primary subject of Woolf’s novel, readers have to orientate themselves while trying to understand events and people they are encountering for the first time.
Virginia Woolf

Chapter 17. Brave New World (1932)

Brave New World takes its title from Miranda’s comment on her first encounter with wider humanity in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/That has such people in’t’ (Act V, scene i, line 183). Huxley’s novel takes up this theme of the ‘vision’ of a new society and constructs a fable centred on a world state 600 years in the future where social stability is based on a scientific caste system. Human beings, graded from highest intellectuals to lowest manual workers, hatched from incubators and brought up in communal nurseries, learn by methodical conditioning to accept their social destiny. The novel’s main character is Bernard Marx, an unorthodox and therefore unhappy alpha-plus, who visits a New Mexican reservation and brings a ‘savage’ back to London. The ‘savage’ is at first fascinated by the ‘new world’, like Miranda, but finally revolted, and his argument with Mustapha Mond, world controller, demonstrates the incompatibility of individual freedom and a scientifically trouble-free society (like most names in the novel, the world controller’s is taken from a figure who changed society: Alfred Mond (1868–1930) was a British industrialist and politician who became the first commissioner of works, minister of health, and a founder of ICI). Huxley writes that the book is about the advancement of science as it affects human individuals. Seriously as well as satirically, it amalgamates eugenics, psychoanalysis, mass entertainment, and the factory production-line in an attempt to present a dystopia which is less of a prediction of life in the future than a warning about the excesses of the present (like Wells’s The Time Machine and Orwell’s 1984). One of its main concerns is the ‘standardisation’ of people as theories of ‘humanity’ overwhelm actual cultural and social difference. Huxley’s fear seems to be that happiness and material well-being will be bought at the price of diversity and individuality.
Aldous Huxley

Chapter 18. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

Orwell was commissioned to write The Road to Wigan Pier for the Left Book Club (founded in 1936 by Victor Gollancz, who had published Orwell’s earlier novels), which had a membership of around 50 000 in 1937. Gollancz wanted a report on the conditions of unemployed miners in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and chose Orwell as a committed and sympathetic author (Orwell had written in his 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter that there was an eleventh modern commandment: ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job’). The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier is Orwell’s account, just as Gollancz wanted. However, Gollancz also received, in the second half of the book, Orwell’s personal assessment of socialism, poverty, his own upbringing and England’s economic and cultural malaise.
George Orwell

Chapter 19. Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

In his late twenties Isherwood spent four years in Berlin, and Goodbye to Berlin, which he has called a ‘roughly continuous narrative’ and a ‘loosely connected sequence of diaries and sketches’, covers that period in the early 1930s. He met up with other friends and canonical ‘thirties’ writers such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender who were similarly trying to escape the socially and especially sexually repressive atmosphere of England. At the time Berlin was seen as a place of licence and liberty, as is apparent in the opening pages of Goodbye to Berlin and in the plays that have been based on the novel: I am a Camera and Cabaret. Only as the 1930s develop does the atmosphere in the novel change from one of decadence to one of oppression alongside the rise of Hitler.
Christopher Isherwood

Chapter 20. Under the Volcano (1947)

In 1936, the peripatetic Lowry settled in the resort town of Cuernavaca, some 50 miles south of Mexico City, where he soon began writing his masterpiece, initially as a short story. Under the Volcano would take ten years to revise fully as Lowry added layer upon layer of mythological reference, mystical symbolism and literary allusion. After the first chapter, the novel chronicles the final twelve hours in the life of a British ex-consul in Quauhnahuac, the Indian name for the town of Cuernavaca. Though most frequently focalised through the mind of the Consul, the book presents the story through the eyes of other characters in some chapters, and its first chapter is set exactly one year in the future, after the Consul’s death. The novel develops as a phantasmagoric late modernist tour de force which follows the day-in-the-life approach of Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but draws on Lowry’s personal interests in Romanticism, expressionism, symbolism and the cabbala. In conventional terms little happens, as the Consul embarks on a drinking spree, while his wife, who has temporarily returned to him, and his brother, who has been fighing in Spain, try to keep him from harm, whether inflicted by himself or by the corrupt Mexican police, who do shoot him at the novel’s close. The book’s fascination lies in its exemplary use of modernist devices: baroque symbolism, rococo imagery, interior monologue, mythological allusion, defamiliarisation, time-shifting, fast-cutting, and intensely resonant, rhythmical, poetic prose. Like Joyce’s Ulysses it is a book about everything: politics, history, Western literature, religion, psychology and human relationships. To this day, the single best way to approach the novel is undoubtedly through Lowry’s 35-page 1946 letter (reprinted in the 1985 Penguin edition) to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape, detailing and defending the book’s dense construction and intricate organisation.
Malcolm Lowry

Chapter 21. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Wide Sargasso Sea is divided into three parts. Although other secondary narrators appear, the first part is narrated by Antoinette Cosway, the second by an unnamed man whom she marries, and the third by Antoinette again. It soon becomes clear to the reader that these two narrators will be more familiar to anyone who has read Jane Eyre as Rochester and Bertha Mason, his first ‘mad’ wife. Rhys’s novel has therefore been called a ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre but this should not be taken literally as there are differences, not least of chronology, between them that mean the characters in the two novels cannot be simply equated. Most of Jane Eyre takes place in the first decade of the century but Wide Sargasso Sea crucially begins with the end of slavery: ‘Still waiting for this compensation the English promised when the Emancipation Act was passed’ (ll.12–14), which was in 1833. Slavery was legally abolished on 1 August 1834, the year that Antoinette’s father dies. In many history books this legislation is portrayed as a great humanitarian move on the part of the British, in contrast with the rest of Europe, but fear of rebellion was a major factor. The Jamaican uprising of 1831–2 was perhaps decisive at a time when widespread unrest across the West Indies was feared and so Wide Sargasso Sea’s opening on Jamaica is partly important precisely because it was the site of intensive black resistance.
Jean Rhys

Chapter 22. The Bloody Chamber (1979)

The source for Angela Carter’s short story is hinted at in the phrase ‘rasp of beard’ (l.47): ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is based on Charles Perrault’s fairy story of Bluebeard. Carter is aware of the different versions of the story and its possible basis in real life (see Duncker, 1986: 232–3). Her story also plays with a number of other fairy tales, such as Rapunzel, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood (for example, note ‘the antique service revolver that my mother, … kept always in her reticule, in case … she was surprised by footpads on her way home from the grocer’s shop’: ll.36–9). But Carter also parodies various literary genres, such as gothic (in the remote castle with its dungeon) and romance (in the rescue on a white charger and the rags to riches story involving music, money and marriage), as well as the narratives of religion and opera. She also toys with the conventions of realism. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ begins with the stock characters of a beggared-for-love widow, ‘daughter of a rich tea-planter’ (l.23), and her only daughter, who appears an icon of Victorian duty and respectability, living humbly in an apartment in Paris. Carter complicates this stereotype by making the unnamed narrator’s mother a kind of adventure hero who has shot tigers and fought Chinese pirates. Immediately, the story incorporates incongruity to make the reader think about the conventions of certain kinds of narrative, and Carter includes some interesting oddities in the story that mirror the way in which she blends genres. The impoverished lifestyle of the 17-year-old narrator includes a maid, and thus simultaneously evokes the ‘charm’ of poverty and the ‘allure’ of wealth. The world of castles and white horses is mixed up with telephone calls from agents in New York, uniting Romantic chivalry and high-tech modern lifestyles. Overall, the story seems to attempt to tantalise the reader with every form of narrative pleasure: horror, romance, pornography, adventure story and fairy tale. Also, the exaggerated use of rich description (‘from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment: ll.5–6) and the overblown language (e.g. ‘into the unguessable country of marriage’: ll.6–7) draws attention to the artificiality and conventionality of the narrative process.
Angela Carter

Chapter 23. Shame (1983)

Before the opening sentence, Shame actually begins with a family tree, to help the reader come to grips with its cast of characters but also to signal the book’s interest in genealogies and lineages, not to say sibling rivalry, incest and nepotism. Rushdie’s third novel is, he says, a story of universal themes such as liberty, equality and fraternity (p.251), but it is also a fantastical allegory of Pakistan since its birth, like Shame’s author, in 1947. This was the moment at which the country’s two halves, East and West, were split off from India at Independence: ‘[a] country divided by two Wings a thousand miles apart, that fantastical bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God’ (p.178). The first sentence of Shame alludes to this unusual national separation in the shape of the town of Q., which looks on the map like ‘an ill-proportioned dumb-bell’. In this it resembles the two (dis)connected clumps of Pakistan, sticking out like misshapen ears wrongly attached to the head of India. The mention of a ‘dumb-bell’ chimes with the title of this opening chapter: ‘The Dumb-waiter’. The significance of these words is that this is a novel concerned with silence and the silenced — the first intimation of which occurs in the second sentence when the reader learns that the names of the three sisters are not to be revealed; we will only know their pseudonyms. Their real names are never used, locked away ‘like the best household china’ (ll.4–5), which is the first allusion made to the fact that the sisters will remain hidden from the world, like many of the women in the book. This second sentence also gives us the image of the sisters’ ‘joint tragedy’, the first suggestion of ‘shame’ in the novel (Rushdie is, however, unhappy with this translation of the Urdu ‘sharam’: see pp.38–9).
Salman Rushdie

Chapter 24. The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical novel is in the Western tradition of Voltaire’s Candide, a social comedy of education and growing awareness. Some critical reviews placed the narrator, Karim Amir, in the same category of picaresque hero as protagonists in the books of the black Americans Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (all of whom Kureishi read avidly as a teenager), while others saw him in terms of quintessentially English characters such as H.G. Wells’s Mr Polly or Kipps, or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. From these seemingly divergent perceptions of reviewers, the reader can begin to consider Kureishi’s novel in terms of a fusion of different types, traditions, or ethnicities.
Hanif Kureishi
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