Elements of satire in the novels of Barbara Pym

Bruce Richard Jacobs, Fordham University


This dissertation examines the twelve novels of Barbara Pym as satiric comedies that attack a series of specific targets and expose social conditions that the author views as absurd and deplorable. In her works, she describes a barren world where men are unimaginative, inept and insensitive towards women; clerics, academics and spouses are sadly ineffectual; and the social institutions they represent--anthropology, Anglicanism and marriage--are unable to inspire a modern society that is growing increasingly insular and apathetic. The study includes close readings of the nine novels published in Pym's lifetime and of three posthumous works: An Unsuitable Attachment, Crampton Hodnet and An Academic Question. Special attention is given to Pym's last four novels which are separated from the other works by a period of sixteen years, when the novelist continued to write but could not find a publisher for her work. The Sweet Dove Died, An Academic Question, Quartet in Autumn and A Few Green Leaves are noticeably more satiric in tone, with darker characterizations and settings and a more pessimistic, overtly critical outlook on modern society. Although the language of Barbara Pym's novels lacks the coarseness and "savage indignation" associated with Juvenalian satire, she is writing satirically, nonetheless. Instead of invective, she uses a lighter, more Horatian tone to ridicule her targets. Distortion of characters, particularly in the form of literary caricatures, appears in all of her novels. Another important satiric feature of many Pym novels is the ameliorative function of her main character, the "excellent woman," who is forced into the role of a social outsider because she is unmarried, middle-aged and trapped in an unexciting career. Through her heroines' experiences, Pym teaches us an ironic lesson: that the excellent woman deserves neither pity nor contempt and that, compared to the world of bumblers and egotists around her, she is not a "loser" at all. Overall, the Pym novels entertain us with their mockery of a cold, absurd outer world, but they also change our social attitudes by taking us inside the warm, imaginative world of the excellent woman.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Literature

Recommended Citation

Jacobs, Bruce Richard, "Elements of satire in the novels of Barbara Pym" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8809473.