Cary's mature work shows several consistent themes. First, the tension between creativity, which destroys the old as it fashions the new, and the conservative desire to preserve things as they are; second, the difference between liberty, which consists of a lack of restraint, and freedom, which lies in the ability to act; finally, the sense that human life is difficult and happiness elusive, that fleeting joy is life's only reward and that love is necessary to humanity.
Mister Johnson (1939) is the story of a young Nigerian who falls afoul of the British colonial regime. Although the novel has a comic tone, the story itself is tragic. Joyce Cary has been quoted as saying that Mister Johnson was his favorite of his own books. Johnson, a young African, is assigned as clerk at an English district office in Fada, Nigeria. He is from a different district and is regarded as a foreigner by those native to the area. Johnson works his way into local society, marrying there, but never really fitting in. At the same time, he has difficulties in adjusting to the regulations and mechanism of the district office and his official duties. The district officer, Rudbeck, meanwhile, is dissatisfied with his work in the service and his life in Africa. Rudbeck conceives the notion that a road linking Fada to the main highway and larger population centers will be of great benefit to the region. Johnson, as Rudbeck's clerk, also becomes enthused about this project. Johnson is one of Cary's joy-filled characters, possessor of a great energy that infects all around him. People are drawn to Johnson and follow him without realizing that they are being led. Indeed, Johnson has no clear idea of where he is going. His delight is in seeing those around him happy. His mood infects Rudbeck and, when Johnson suggests how the books may be fiddled to support Rudbeck's road project, the colonial officer is seduced. But Rudbeck's swindle is uncovered and he returns to England to be with his wife. Johnson now goes to work for Gollup, a retired British sergeant who has married a native woman and runs the local store. Gollup is an abusive drunk given to racist epithets, but he admires Johnson's good-humored courage in facing up to his words and blows. Johnson, in turn, enjoys the compliment to his courage and, when Gollup next attacks him, retaliates. Gollup does not take this kind of violence seriously and thinks no less of Johnson, but he cannot have an employee who has struck him in public. Johnson is let go and leaves Fada. Meanwhile, a shortage of political officers means that Rudbeck must return. He immediately recommences his road-building. Rudbeck and his superior work out the extent to which he can finagle road-building funds from the accounts, but the older man warns Rudbeck that another scandal will destroy his career. The road-building brings Johnson back to Fada. Rudbeck hires him and Johnson's infectious enthusiasm makes the road-building successful. But Rudbeck discovers that Johnson has been engaged in petty graft and dismisses him. Johnson turns to theft from the store to support his lifestyle and, when Gollup discovers him, kills the storekeeper. Now Rudbeck must try Johnson for murder. The trial brings Rudbeck to the breaking point. Johnson is found guilty and begs Rudbeck to keep him from the gallows by killing him. Rudbeck follows his heart rather than the rules and does so, though the act will destroy his career and possibly have other ramifications, legal and personal, that lie beyond the close of the novel.
Chinua Achebe has said that Mister Johnson struck him as superficial and helped form his determination to write his own novels about Nigeria. Other critics have found Cary's portrayal of his main character patronizing and Johnson himself childish. But these criticisms miss the universal quality of Johnson as one of the world's creators. It is important to see Johnson as an individual character and not as a generalized racial type. And, it should be noted, the pidgin English spoken by the characters is a lingua franca for Nigerians with different tribal dialects. Johnson is capable of speaking good Hausa and other languages and this is presented by Cary in a different fashion than pidgin conversations. The general theme of creator/destroyer (since Cary thought the two went together) opposed to conservative order is present in much of Cary's fiction from this point forward.
Mister Johnson is often read in schools and has had a wide audience. It has been adapted as a play (by Norman Rosten) and a film (by Bruce Beresford).
The First Trilogy: Cary's first trilogy follows three characters at the end of their lives whose stories serve as social commentary on Edwardian and post World War I England. Each novel is narrated in the first person by its main character. The resulting counterpoint (and sometimes contradiction) of voices contribute to a richly textured narrative. Although each book stands on its own, the trilogy is a cohesive work. The basic theme is the contrast between Gulley Jimson, the destructive creator, and Thomas Wilcher, the staid conservator of the past. Sara Monday, lover to both, lives in the present, making do as best she can.
Herself Surprised (1941), introduces Sara Monday, the character whose life unites the three volumes. Sara, a rural domestic, marries her employer, Matthew Monday. When Matthew dies, Sara takes up with Gulley Jimson, a painter who had performed a commission arranged by the Mondays. This event estranges Sara from her snobbish daughters. Jimson runs through Sara's savings and she is left on her own. Sara then takes up a position with the Wilcher family, looking after the aged Thomas Wilcher. Sara winds up in bed with him and the family become concerned that she will displace them in Wilcher's will. They have her arrested for theft. All this is related by Sara, who is just out of jail at the novel's beginning. Here, and in the books that follow, Cary has his characters relate the action from a personal point of view that shows them as they wish to be seen. Sara justifies her actions from her own perspective and is silent about events she wishes to hide. The reader is left to work out the actuality of events from the clues Cary has provided.
To Be a Pilgrim (1942) is Thomas Wilcher's story. It is often neglected by readers of the other two novels in the trilogy. Cary thought this was because it lacked the humor of the other two books. Wilcher is a cold man, dedicated to preserving the family fortune. He has been brought up in an age when the ideal is "To be a pilgrim" (as in John Bunyan's hymn). His sister joins a religious commune and his brother, Edward, is a radical Liberal politician. These characters are deeply involved in the events of their time. Both seek a new and better day. Edward's party is triumphant in the constitutional crisis of 1906 which ends the power of the House of Lords, but the reader can see, through Thomas' eyes, that Edward embodies the traits that destroy the Liberals shortly after. Wilcher, whose great desire is "to be a pilgrim", never manages to escape the constriction of the life he has created for himself. Cary said that, while Sara knew historical change "only in people and herself" and Jimson saw it "as the battle of aesthetic ideas with each other and with a public always blind and self-assured", Wilcher is a man of "political and religious intuition. The tragedy of such a man is that he sees the good for ever being destroyed by the bad..." To Be a Pilgrim begins a month after Sara's incarceration. Wilcher has been removed to the family's country house and put under the care of his niece, Ann. His nephew, Robert, joins them and the two cousins become involved. Wilcher escapes from their custody to seek out Sara Monday but finds her already settled with another man. Back in his home, the dying Wilcher first struggles against the changes that his niece and her young man are making to the house then comes to accept them as necessary destruction. At the end of his life, Wilcher comes to accept himself as a conservator even as he learns to embrace change and to, finally, live as a pilgrim.
The Horse's Mouth (1944) is Gulley Jimson's tale. Jimson's father, based on a real person known to Cary, was an Academy artist who is heart-broken when Impressionism drives his style from popular taste. Jimson has put aside any consideration of acceptance by either academy or public and paints in fits of creative ecstasy. Although his work is known to collectors and has become valuable, Jimson himself is forced to live from one scam or petty theft to the next. Cadging enough money to buy paints and supplies, he spends much of the novel seeking surfaces, such as walls, to serve as ground for his paintings. When the novel opens, Jimson has just been released from jail. He seeks money from Hickson, his sometime patron, who was introduced in Herself Surprised. Later in the book, he will track down Sara Monday and try to obtain an early painting from her that is worth a great deal. Sara is reluctant to give up the picture, which serves as a reminder of her youth. In the struggle that follows, Sara falls and suffers a fatal injury. Jimson is unsentimental about his life and work and sees himself as someone who has given over to a destructive passion. Yet he regrets nothing. At the novel's end, the dying Jimson reflects on his life and the home and family that he has missed. But he recognizes that he himself made the decision to sacrifice those possibilities in order to pursue his art. A nun who is nursing him remarks that he should be praying instead of laughing, "Same thing, Mother." replies Jimson, his last words. The book's commentary on the relationship of the artist to society and the humor with which Jimson's life is presented have made it Cary's best-liked novel. The Horse's Mouth was adapted into a successful film by the director Ronald Neame, starring Alec Guinness (who also wrote the script) as Jimson and featuring the paintings of John Bratby. The film was successful with audiences, but Cary's ending was softened.
Each of the characters in the First Trilogy fails, to some degree, in meeting their own objectives. In each case, this failure is caused by the conflicting elements that make up each personality. Sara wants to rise in society and find a secure home, but her appetite for life causes her to lose her bourgeois home and status. Yet this appetite arises from the vitality that is Sara's great gift. Wilcher wishes to be a pilgrim, yet his conservative nature keeps him from ever leaving a restricted life. But this conservatism is also Wilcher's virtue and the preservation of old verities, rather than the quest for new truths, is his life's work. Jimson wants to lose himself in creation, but his very presence creates disorder and destruction. It is noteworthy that, of the various projects Jimson begins in The Horse's Mouth, only one survives (and that is unfinished) at the end of the book. This destruction extends to the people who come into contact with Jimson, including Sara Monday, and to Jimson himself whose body is broken by the same neglect and abuse he offers others. Even though the characters in the First Trilogy cannot manage to reach their self-proclaimed objectives, they are not failures as people. It is Cary's great achievement that we find some kind of sympathy and understanding for each of these human beings whose lives shape the flow of history even as they are swept along by it.
The Moonlight (1946), is the story of three women in 1930s England: Amanda and her two aunts, Rose and Ella. Amanda is 32, an introspective and bookish woman; her aunts are determined to see her married, though each has a different candidate for husband. Ella has selected a local young farmer, Harry Dawbarn, and Rose opts for Amanda's cousin, a lawyer named Robin Sant. As the novel progresses, we see that Rose has made a choice based on her view of a good match—Robin is Amanda's match intellectually—but Ella is trying to relive her own past love affair, thwarted by Rose, by choosing an impecunious, but attractive, young man. In the event, Amanda tries both men, then makes her own choices.
Cary meant The Moonlight as a riposte to Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, a work narrated by a man who has murdered his wife which characterized women as a trap. Cary understood this as a mischaracterization of the fundamental "bitter injustice" of women's position. Toward the novel's end, Ella plays the Moonlight Sonata. Her audience remarks that it is romantic but she reflects that it is "violent, bitter, tragic". Cary thought that the triumphs of the suffragette movement in the 1920s had not made women happier, but only created for them a difficult choice between family and personal fulfillment. Even so, this was an advance, and all humanity was better off that women were more free.
The novel's point of view is sometimes that of Amanda, more often that of Ella's. Rose is seen only from outside, though she is the character that has taken the brunt of criticism. Cary went to great lengths to defend Rose. She was one of his conservators but, like Wilcher for example, she failed to elicit reader sympathy. Another problem for some readers is Amanda's personality, which can be seen as either cold or passive. Amanda is an outsider who intellectualizes and analyzes even when she observes herself. Sometimes she wonders at her own lack of passion but this is part of her nature. At the end of the novel she finds herself wondering if that nature may change. All of The Moonlight's main characters, except Harry and Robin, are women. Men are seen from outside and judgments on them as individuals are often harsh. It is only toward the end of the novel that these judgments are at all softened and we are reminded of Cary's dictum that life for all people, not just women, is essentially unfair. Although the rural background and talk of tenants and trusts and interest income may sound like George Eliot, The Moonlight is a novel with very current concerns. Post-revolutionary reaction, the conflict between marriage and career, the choice between self-fulfillment and social acceptance, are contemporary topics that were Cary's currency more than a half century ago.
The Second Trilogy: Between 1952 and 1955, Joyce Cary published a second trilogy: Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1954), and Not Honour More (1955). Cary was dissatisfied with his first trilogy and wished his second set of three novels to be a more unified work. The basic theme of the trilogy is politics and its background, the rise of Labour in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Cary thought that, just as religion has the function of satisfying and guiding the soul, so politics performed the same function for the body. He said that politicians have the options of persuading people or shooting them, and this is the rather explicit message of this work. As in the First Trilogy, each novel is narrated by a character at life's end, looking back on the past and telling the story of how things came to turn out the way that they have. Also as in the earlier work, the characters form a triangle, a woman and two of her lovers.
Prisoner of Grace is Nina Woodville's story. She loves her cousin, Jim Latter, in a passive way. Latter is an exciting element in her life, though one she might do without. Nina never has this option though, as her aunt manipulates the situation and drives the two together. Still, when Nina winds up pregnant, Latter is judged not to have the material resources to make a good husband. He is packed off to Africa and Nina is married to Chester Nimmo, a Labour politico who is twenty years her senior. When Latter returns from Africa, he and Nina take up once more and she becomes pregnant again. Again, Latter is removed from the picture and Nimmo takes on the second child. Then Nimmo is involved in a stock-manipulation scandal that ruins him politically. Nina's narrative is meant, on the surface, to help explain that Nimmo was only trying to do the right thing. Nina goes from one to the other of the men, Nimmo representing persuasion and Latter, force. Nina, then, might represent the public, though Cary himself would disdain such a stark reading of his scheme.
Except the Lord is Nimmo's story and Cary's attempt to show the "roots of English left-wing politics in evangelical religion". Nimmo is the son of a lay preacher, a "religious soldier" as his son remembers him, who works as a stableman. Nimmo grows up in poverty. He loses his religion but replaces it with a new political faith fed by radical pamphlets and ideas. He begins by trying to organize farm laborers in his district. These early efforts end in failure but, eventually, organizing bears fruit and Nimmo is elected MP largely by the evangelical vote. When reading the first and third volumes of the Second Trilogy, we see Nimmo from the outside as a manipulative fraud, but Except the Lord shows the anger and compassion that drive Nimmo and their source in the grinding poverty of his early life. Cary meant Nimmo as a type he called the "spell-binder", someone who can attract and persuade people. This was the common sort of politician in a democracy, he said, where persuasion is more important than force.
Jim Latter, narrator of Not Honour More, is an Army man who believes in authority. In the General Strike of 1926, Latter forms a vigilante police force to keep order, but the reader can see that the group is just this side of fascist thuggery. Nimmo is attempting a political comeback, Nina is helping him, Latter becomes jealous, and the three are drawn into a fateful confrontation. Of the three characters, Latter is the easiest to dislike but Cary succeeds in making us at least understand the man. Latter is a man of order who accepts society and its rules as a given. He believes that he is a man destined to rule because he was born to a certain social level. He is dependent on society's willingness to support him but is unable to see his own limitations.
Cary: "The whole point of the trilogy is the all-pervasion of the political scene. All human relations, even the most private and personal, have a political aspect." And: "...moral ends are still dominant in British politics. The essential difference between the conservative and radical parties is still in their basic religious ideas."
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