Theses Doctoral

The Unforgiving Margin in the Fiction of Christopher Isherwood

McNeil, Paul

Rebellion and repudiation of the mainstream recur as motifs throughout Christopher Isherwood's novels and life, dating back to his early experience of the death of his father and continuing through to the end of his own life with his vituperative rant against the heterosexual majority. Threatened by the accepted, by the traditional, by the past, Isherwood and his characters escape to the margin, hoping to find there people who share alternative values and ways of living that might ultimately prove more meaningful and enlightened than those they leave behind in the mainstream. In so doing, they both discover that the margin is a complicated place that is more often menacing than redemptive. Consistently, Isherwood's fiction looks at margins and the impulse to flee from the mainstream in search of a marginal alternative. On the one hand, these alternative spaces are thought to be redemptive, thought to liberate and nourish. Isherwood reveals that they do neither. To explore this theme, the dissertation focuses on three novels, The Berlin Stories (The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin), A Meeting by the River, and A Single Man, because ach of these novels corresponds to marginal journeys of Isherwood--namely, his sexual and creative exile in Berlin from 1929 to 1933, his embrace of Hindu philosophy, and his life as a homosexual. Each of these novels positions characters outside of the mainstream in order to subvert a redemptive message and depict the margin as a very dark and dangerous place. Chapter 1 focuses on the period from 1929 to 1933 when Isherwood lived in Berlin and on the collection entitled The Berlin Stories, which includes The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. That fiction tells of the variegated landscape that was Weimar Berlin. In that landscape, Isherwood discovers and examines others who, like himself, seek alternatives to the mainstream: the bohemian Sally Bowles, the Landaurer family, who as Jews fear the rising Nazi tide, and the politically ambiguous Mr. Norris. His portraits of these people and the world they inhabit expose not only the darkest corners of mainstream Berlin, but also the futility of attempts to flee from the mainstream to more satisfying alternatives. Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to Vedanta, one of the six schools of Hindu thought that would become central to Isherwood's life from July of 1939 until he died in 1986 and that is at the heart of Isherwood's final novel, A Meeting by the River (1967). In that work the margin and the mainstream are juxtaposed throughout. Rhetorically, the novel is rich and clearly one of Isherwood's finest. One approach to the novel emphasizes the redemptive power of the margin. The monastic life and all that it entails spiritually free one from the burdens of the material world. A compatible approach to the novel emphasizes the power of self-discovery as a bonding agent between the brothers. I argue for an alternative reading of the novel, one that emphasizes Patrick's journey and the implicit peril of the moral relativism endorsed by Vedanta. Patrick is nothing more than a con artist. And finally, Chapter 4 examines Isherwood's finest novel, A Single Man, the story of George, who is left alone after the death of his lover, Jim. Isherwood's homosexuality asserts itself both covertly and overtly throughout the novels, though today many of the positions reveal themselves as nascent attempts to understand sexual identity in personal, social, and political terms. A Single Man is Isherwood's most sophisticated and probing look at what it means to be a homosexual. The militantly political is ever present. And yet, the novel is in many ways a contemplative piece, one of stunning beauty that grows out of the simple fact that George's lover of many years has died. In reflecting on the cottage where they lived, George reminisces early on that "they loved it because you could only get to it by the bridge across the creek; the surrounding trees and the steep bushy cliff behind shut it in like a house in a forest clearing. `As good as being on our own island,' George said." In essence, George and Jim cut themselves off from the world. They live unto each other and in a community of like-minded people. Together on the margin, they are content and fulfilled. And yet, when Jim dies, George is abandoned and adrift. He is deprived of mainstream consolation--public memorials, spousal recognition, and children--and deserted; he is a sobering portrait of isolation and despair.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Mendelson, Edward
Awn, Peter
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 1, 2013