Dana Grove's A Rhetorical Analysis of "Under the Volcano": Malcolm Lowry's Design Governing Postures is a valuable volume-length close reading of Lowry's magnum opus, a useful primer on the intricacies of this dark text for the uninitiated. Grove's is an astute and lucid study that explicates Lowry's text on a chapter-by-chapter basis for its techniques, themes, and sources, while providing a useful synthesis of the best that has been thought and said about the novel. In particular, Grove's bibliography of other critical studies (including the original book reviews) of Under the Volcano is comprehensive and current.
Unfortunately, as insightful, balanced, and comprehensive as it is, this close reading of Under the Volcano does not break new ground. The first chapter, "A Review of Criticism," while an appropriate opening chapter for a dissertation, proves to be ineffective as an introduction to what should be a more original effort. Although such a synthesis of past criticism has its place, Grove's mechanical distinction between "source, theme and technique studies" does not fully do justice to this criticism, because much of it—and certainly the best of it—incorporates all three concerns (and more) simultaneously.
The chapter on method, "Rhetorical Analysis Defined," is problematic for failing to fulfill its promise. Instead of actually tendering a definition of rhetorical analysis, Grove discusses Lowry's well-known letter to British publisher Jonathan Cape, arguing that a rhetorical analysis of Lowry's novel "must first turn to this amazing letter to ascertain exactly what Lowry's concerns were." My objection here is not that Grove's study is "intentionalistic"—that it is devoted to "seeing precisely how Lowry's intentions and audience become manifest in his work"—rather it is that we learn nothing new either about Lowry's famous letter to Cape or about rhetorical theory generally (the majority of Grove's citations on this subject date from the late 1960s).
Another problem with A Rhetorical Analysis of "Under the Volcano" is evident in the concluding chapter, "Malcolm Lowry's 'Design-Governing Postures.' " There, Grove summarizes his findings that Lowry's style and structure, far from [End Page 244] being arbitrary, are painstakingly organized and planned and hence that the novel is a high-modernist work of art in the spirit of Joyce's Ulysses —a thesis at present not in need of arguing. For while it is undoubtedly the case that "a problem that anyone unacquainted with Under the Volcano will encounter upon initially reading the book is that it lacks a substantial plot to unify the novel structurally," Grove's point that Lowry's use of "stream of consciousness," leitmotifs, allusions, and symbols provides a substitute unifying structure for this fiction scarcely needs being rehearsed, much less proven at great length.
This is not to suggest that A Rhetorical Analysis of "Under the Volcano" is of no use to students of Under the Volcano. To the contrary, newcomers to Lowry's enigmatic text will profit from an encounter with Grove's analysis. For more seasoned Lowryans, however, this volume's major strength proves to be its greatest weakness: a comprehensiveness of scope that precludes the focus necessary to lead us to new insights about Lowry's still too little appreciated and understood masterpiece.