The central argument of Edwin Christian's first book, Joyce Cary's Creative Imagination, is perfectly clear. Cary's "major theme," Christian writes, "is something he calls creative imagination." In fact, Cary's work "can only be thoroughly understood when one also understands this theme's importance." What then did Cary mean by creative imagination? As Christian writes, it is—in part—"the basic method by which people make sense of the world"; it is a "complex thing," bound up not only with intuition and perception but with the "ability to act and to accept change": it can be "stimulated or stunted." "When Cary's characters fail, and they all fail in one way or another—as people, not as characters," it is usually because they have failed to discover a "usable meaning in life" or have followed "a false perception of reality." When they succeed, it is because they have managed to maintain their full creative powers—often in the face of severe obstacles.
Thus, although Cary's novels tend not to be overtly didactic, they consistently make plain his belief that some perceptions of reality can be pernicious, destructive; that, too, "if one's education is insufficient, one's intuition of the world [End Page 277] nature may be seriously flawed." Consider, suggests Christian, one of Cary's best-known novels, Mr. Johnson. The title character finds life "perpetually exciting," like many of Cary's most admirable figures. But, like other Africans living under colonialist rule, the exuberant Johnson has been handicapped by a wretched education that has left him "without much ability to foresee the consequences of his acts and without an ethical system to help him distinguish right from wrong." Instead of liberating him, Johnson's misguided creativity brings him nothing but trouble—and eventually costs him his life. Similarly, Charley Brown, the hero of Charley is My Darling, does not pass his youth in a stimulating, creative environment; his sense of reality is shaped largely by trashy books and gangster films. "The amazing thing," writes Christian, is that Charley "is not worse than he is, that he is still a loving boy at heart."
Gulley Jimson, the hero of The Horse's Mouth, "lacks the will-power to finish the paintings he begins. He is unable to concentrate for long on his work, for try as he might, he cannot avoid grievances." Still, as Christian notes, Jimson "revels in change and is trained in his art" and is generally able to make constructive use of his creative imagination. This "first trilogy" ;Herself Surprised, To Be a Pilgrim, and The Horse's Mouth comprises "Cary's greatest work and his most complete picture of the creative imagination in action." "It is their imagination, their readiness to adapt, their willing acceptance of responsibility, or the lack of these things," that plays the major role in determining the shape and direction of the lives of the trilogy's central characters. Jimson, Edward Wilcher, and Sara Monday are certainly influenced by factors of heredity and environment, but—as Christian seeks to show—"what they make of what they are given depends on their creativity."
Christian does not discuss at length Cary's philosophical debts and aesthetic theory, which he notes have been "adequately covered" by previous critics. In any event, as Christian concedes, Cary is "not a philosopher of great weight." But he is frequently a novelist of considerable brilliance, his works consistently revealing a "vibrant sense of life." As a critic, Christian is sympathetic, perceptive, and generally convincing—although rather prone to repetition. He discusses all of Cary's major novels, as well as The Drunken Sailor and Marching Soldier, two long poems. Christian insists that these are "mature and original works" that "add to the reader's understanding of Cary's novels, with which they share many themes, particularly the themes of the injustice of life, the necessity of freedom, and the world's creative character." In fact, Cary is not a particularly distinguished...