One of the first questions that we ask ourselves when we read a novel (or a short story) is who is telling the story and how does the author feel about the characters. Often we sense that the narrator is critical of her protagonist or at least does not approve of some of her actions. It is interesting to pay attention to this criticism especially if it goes beyond a personal dislike to social comment. One good example of such social comment we can find in the Barchester Chronicles of Anthony Trollope or in Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Another example is in the 1950s novels of my favorite author Barbara Pym.
The world that Pym creates in her novel is a world that she knows and cares about. Yet her first-hand knowledge of her subject matter has led not only to her realistic representation of her world but also to a critical view of it.To convey her social comment Pym chooses to be , or to employ, what Michael walzer calls a “connected critic,” that is, a member of a certain community who chooses to observe and write critically about people who are largely like herself (see Walzer 1987: 39). Such a critic is neither emotionally nor intellectually detached from the group and holds principles similar to theirs. Pym acknowledges her role as a critic of her community, but limits her criticism to what she knows and often likes best: “I suppose I criticize and mock at the clergy and the C. of E. because I am fond of them” (MS. Pym 98 fol. 85). Indeed, the relatively muted tone of her criticism is in part due to the affection she has for her characters and her milieu. Walzer envisions the connected critic as one who would argue vocally, sometimes “angrily,” with his/her community. Although Pym’s writing, unlike that of some of her contemporaries, such as John Osborne or Kingsley Amis, is not characterized by anger, in an environment where understatement is the norm subtle criticism can be just as effective.
Being too close to the target of one’s criticism may leave insufficient room for critical distance (Walzer 40). Pym is aware of this drawback, and in her letters and diaries she stresses detachment as a quality she admires and tries to bring to all her writing, and to the way she looks at her characters (MS. Pym 98 fol. 85). The connected critic, according to Walzer, expresses her opinions at “considerable personal risk.” It is not clear whether this is the reason for Pym’s inability to publish her work for 17 years, yet she did pay a price for continuing to write the kind of novels her audience no longer wished to read.
The subtlety of the criticism evident in the above anecdotes is representative of the mode of Pym’s social commentary. Her attitudes are ambivalent, and serious socio-philosophical issues are either implied or presented with wry overtones. In spite of her disapprobation of many of the social changes and their effects, Pym’s social commentary is never didactic. Moreover, although, as a connected critic, Pym points to flaws in the social structure, throughout her novels she demonstrates a benevolent attitude toward her society. We should be extra careful when we read Pym today: her understatements and her occasionally sardonic tone can easily lead to the twenty-first century reader’s missing the critical edge of her social commentary.