Analysis of C. P. Snow’s Novels

Characterization is the foundation of C. P. Snow’s (15 October 1905 – 1 July 1980) fiction. While theme and idea, as one might expect from a writer as political and engagé as was Snow, are important to his work, and while plot is nearly always a major source of interest, character is fundamental. It was his special approach to characterization, at once limited and complex, that allowed him to employ theme and plot, as well as style and imagery, in its service and that made certain subject matter particularly appropriate. Consequently, his works have their own distinctive and satisfying unity.


In his study of Trollope, a writer whom he valued highly and with whom he identified in a number of ways, Snow speaks interestingly of characterization. He defines character as persona, distinguishes it from inherent, individual nature, and considers personality to be a fusion of nature and character. These distinctions are certainly relevant to Snow’s own work. His starting interest is in “characters,” that is, an individual’s personal qualities that are conditioned by, and expressed in, social experience. Yet, recognizing that this character interacts with “nature,” Snow, in attempting to represent a rounded picture of personality, must demonstrate the interaction. His fiction, then, is simultaneously concerned with showing people their character in social situations, indicating their nature or personal psychology, and presenting the interplay of the two, the social character and the private nature. All people have, in differing proportions, both a private and a social side to their personalities; all are both strangers and brothers.

Given this approach, it is not difficult to understand why Snow dealt frequently with “man in committee,” or why he balanced this social material with presentation of individual passions, such as Lewis Eliot’s for Sheila. Work and careers, seen in relation to individual nature and love and sex, were the two poles to which his subject matter flowed. As the social side of personality developed, Snow was able to suggest its changing formation. One observes, for example, Walter Luke’s evolution from a brash young scientist to Lord Luke of Salcombe; his persona, but not his basic nature, changes with the years. Because an individual’s nature is inherent (like his or her physiology), it is taken as a donnée, and its effects are dealt with. It is, for example, a given fact that Roy Calvert is a kind of “manic-depressive”; the reader discovers what the results of this nature will be, both for Calvert himself and for those with whom he interacts.

It was convenient for Snow that this approach to character was quite appropriate to the type of plotting that he apparently preferred. Most of his novels pose a question: “What will Martin decide?” “Who will be elected master?” “Will Roger Quaife succeed?” The reader, in attempting to anticipate the answer, and Snow, in providing and justifying it, must consider the personalities involved. This consideration requires some understanding of the characters’ public personae, their social interactions, and their private passions. Plot, a strong element in its own right, is based on character.

Imagery also consistently reinforces Snow’s binocular view of personality. The light of brotherhood wages a never-ending Manichaean conflict with the dark of private estrangement. Windows may be lit, inviting people to “come home” to social involvement, but they often walk the dark streets, locked out in their lonely individuality.

Much of Snow’s style also reflects his view of personality. E. A. Levenston, in a careful study of Snow’s sentence structure (ES, 1974), has noticed the prevalence of qualifying “interrupters.” Many of these are a result of Snow’s comparing the particular to the general, one person’s qualities to many people’s. Expressions such as “very few men, George least of all” or “Roy was not a snob, no man was less so,” run throughout his work.

Thus, Snow was consistent in his craft. If this consistency imposed some limitations on his achievements, it also provided a valuable unity to his whole literary corpus.

Death Under Sail

For reasons that he later described as “obscure,” Snow “signalled” that he intended to abandon his scientific career by writing “a stylised, artificial detective story very much in the manner of the day.” Death Under Sail is a competent example of this form; it remains quite readable and in some ways foreshadows his more significant work. Told in the first person (curiously, for a book by a twenty-six-year-old, the narrator is sixty-three), it employs light and dark and also water imagery; it includes a political discussion regarding class society being justified through the ranks of the elite being open to talent; and it is concerned with friendship and the generation gap. More important, the plot hinges on character. While the novel’s characterization is relatively superficial, it involves both social character, as seen in the interaction of a small group (the narrator, the detective, and the suspects), and the individual psychology of concealed motives. It is thus typical of Snow’s novels, most of which have the element of a suspense story based on the two sides, public and private, of personality.

New Lives for Old

Snow’s second published novel, New Lives for Old, is the weakest of his canon, but it is not without its virtues. The story involves the discovery of a rejuvenating process and the subsequent questions of whether the process will be suppressed, its effects on the love lives of some of the characters, and the political implications of the discovery. These three questions are not well unified; instead of integrating the love interest and the politics, in this one instance Snow treats them as essentially separate stories, at the expense of both. The love story in the middle section becomes tedious; in the last section of the book Snow, atypically, lets a political interest stifle the story. The first part of the book, however, is fairly successful. Here, the plot is related to character, social interactions, private motivations, and moral decisions. Snow is doing what he does best. The falling-off of the work after its relatively effective beginning, however, justifies his decision not to have it reprinted; it is now a difficult book to obtain.

The Search

Snow’s third published novel, The Search, was slightly revised and reprinted twenty-four years after its first appearance. It is generally superior to the first two novels and more easily related to the Strangers and Brothers series, especially Time of Hope and Homecoming. Although Snow warns the reader, in his preface to the 1958 edition, that the book’s narrator and protagonist, Arthur Miles, is “not much like” Snow himself, clearly there is an autobiographical element in the story of a poor boy’s using his talent, determination, and scholarships to make a career in science, later to abandon it to turn to writing. The book was praised for its accurate picture of what it is like to be a scientist; in fact, very little scientific activity per se is present. Rather, professional concerns, ambitions, the relation between love and career, and the decisions made by men in committees constitute the basic material of the book. The protagonist might just as easily be a barrister as a scientist. Indeed, The Search, while a worthwhile book in its own right, can be seen as a trying out of the material that Snow was to go on to develop in his series.

The defects of The Search result primarily from attempting to try out too much at once; the book’s construction becomes somewhat confused. The virtues arise from Snow’s basing his work on personal experience; he employed, more thoroughly than in his first two published novels, his skill in showing the interconnections of the personal and public aspects of personality.

The favorable reception given to The Search certainly encouraged Snow to continue his career as a novelist; within a year of its publication, he conceived of the series on which his reputation rests. He must have made various plans for the series as a whole; the first volume, however, did not appear until 1940, six years after The Search. Writing a roman-fleuve, as opposed to a series of individual novels, presents an author with certain problems and various opportunities. While Snow avoided some of the pitfalls, such as narrative inconsistency, he failed to take advantage of some of the potentialities of the form. The overall pattern of this series is more blurred than it need have been. This is indicated by the order in which the books were published; it is not the essentially chronological order of the Omnibus edition, published after the series was concluded. While this authorial rearrangement must be accepted, the fact that Snow did not originally insist on it suggests a certain random quality to the series’ organization as first conceived of and executed. Furthermore, proposed systems of classification of the books within the series—as, for example, novels of “observed experience” and of “direct experience,” or novels dealing with individuals, groups, or a mixture of both—while useful, fail to make clear a compelling pattern.

Indeed, the individual volumes of the series, with the possible exception of the final Last Things, stand on their own and easily can be enjoyed separately. That is not to say that nothing is gained by reading them all in the order that they appear in the Omnibus edition. As compared, however, to a work such as Anthony Powell’s romanfleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), Strangers and Brothers fails to develop the potential cumulative effect of a series.

The series form does allow the overlapping of incident and the “resonance” between events as seen and felt by the narrator, Lewis Eliot. Snow has an interesting concept here but he does too little with it. The reader does not, as in some of the novels of Joyce Cary, see the same events through different eyes; rather, one is given different accounts by a relatively consistent Eliot. The result is that events described for the second time sometimes bore the reader; at other times the reader feels cheated by the inadequacy of the first account. Only occasionally does the technique work well, as, for example, in the two accounts, in The Light and the Dark and The Masters, of Roy Calvert’s giving of a self-damning paper to Winslow. The first account omits material in order to focus on Calvert; subsequently, as one learns of the larger implications of the act, it takes on new meaning.

Strangers and Brothers series

More obvious benefits of a series novel are present in Strangers and Brothers. The reader observes more characters, over a longer period of time, than would normally be possible in a single volume. Snow, however, possibly in the interest of verisimilitude, does relatively little with his opportunity. Roy Calvert is killed off, George Passant’s change is not traced; one does see more of Martin Eliot and Francis Getliffe, but their developments, such as they are, have little drama. There is little in Snow corresponding to the surprises that Powell gives the reader when, for example, his villain, Widmerpool, makes one of his sudden appearances. Only quite rarely does Snow make effective use of surprise, as when the elderly Hector Rose is found to have acquired a younger, sexy wife.

The time span of the series does, however, allow Snow to present the succession of generations, and he does a fine job of suggesting how childhood experiences affect parents as they react to their own children and their friends’ children. The parents’ point of view is an important part of human experience, infrequently treated in fiction; here again, in presenting parental love, Snow effectively filled a vacuum.

Amore fundamental aspect of the roman-fleuve is the development of the narrator. Lewis Eliot does change, both in his attitudes and in his style, becoming more ironic in the later volumes. Looking back on earlier events, such as his support of Jago in The Masters, he recognizes his errors. While Eliot’s development adds interest to the whole series, it would be difficult to maintain that this interest is central.

There are two final aspects of a series novel that make Strangers and Brothers something other than eleven separate books—repetition and thematic development. The former is a two-edged device. Any reader of the whole series will be struck by the frequent repetition of certain phrases, sententious remarks, images, and tricks of style, and can readily assemble a list. Are the values of the repetition—interesting variations on a theme and a sense of continuity—greater than the drawback— monotony? In Snow’s case, it is something of a tossup. On balance, although many readers may be inclined to say “Oh no! Not another lighted window,” the recurring images of light and darkness do form a pattern that unifies the series and reinforces its themes.

Finally, there is theme. Snow himself, in a note preceding The Conscience of the Rich, indicated the importance of recurring themes, including “possessive love” and love of, and renunciation of, power. The list could be easily expanded; as has been indicated, the title of the series itself points to a fundamental thematic concern. By seeing these various themes dramatized through different characters in differing circumstances, and learning Lewis Eliot’s reactions, the reader certainly gains a perspective that would be impossible in a single volume. Thematic perspective, then, provides the most convincing justification for Snow’s series. It is a sufficient justification; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That Snow’s strength lay more in characterization than thematic presentation may account for the occasional failures of the series.

A brief discussion of three of the eleven novels of the series may serve to suggest aspects of the volumes considered as individual works. Time of Hope is both an early novel and one that focuses on Lewis Eliot; The Masters, generally the most highly regarded of the series, is from the middle period and has a “collective hero”; Corridors of Power, a later novel, centers on a protagonist other than Eliot.

Time of Hope

Time of Hope was the third volume in the series; in terms of internal chronology, however, it comes first, dealing with the years 1914 to 1933, during which Lewis Eliot matures from a boy of nine years to an established barrister, who is involved in an “impossible” marriage. Strongly unified by its plot, it is perhaps the most emotionally moving volume of the whole series, and one of the more successful.

Indicative of Snow’s central concern for the interconnections of the public and private aspects of character, the title refers to both the hope for a better society that Eliot shares with George Passant’s group, and the hero’s private ambitions. Asked what he wants from life, Eliot, in a phrase he returns to much later in the series, replies that he wants to see a better world, spend his life not unknown, and gain love.

The suspense in the novel is based on the question of whether Eliot will succeed, whether he will at least be started on the road to realizing these hopes. The conflict and tension behind this question provide the angst that contrasts to the hope. The book begins with a “homecoming,” dreaded by the young Eliot. (In a clear parallel with Proust, Snow picks this up at the start of the very last volume of the series.) Just as he had reason to fear this first homecoming, Eliot later dreads subsequent returns to the woman he manages to marry. Eliot’s success is mingled with failure. Through a combination of his nature, which gives him the drive to struggle, and his social character, which wins him the help of Passant, Eliot’s personality wins through on the public level: He succeeds in becoming a barrister. On the personal level, however, while he “succeeds” in marrying Sheila, his possessive love evokes no response; his marriage is personally disastrous and a handicap to his career.

Snow in Time of Hope thus successfully utilizes his approach to character and his recurring themes in a selfcontained story, but one that also prepares for subsequent volumes. His techniques in this volume are typical of the series: The imagery of light and darkness prevails; secondary characters, such as Herbert Getliffe, the barrister under whom Eliot trains, are well drawn; the nature of a major character is presented as a donneé. Not being shown what makes her the strange person she is, one must take Sheila’s problems as given. Fortunately for the story, it is easier to do so than to accept Calvert’s inherent depression in The Light and the Dark. As a bildungsroman, Time of Hope is more conventional than the majority of the volumes in the series. Consequently, it is both one of the more satisfactory of Snow’s novels and one of the less distinctively interesting.

The Masters

While Time of Hope has a clear protagonist, The Masters, the first volume in the revised series, has no one hero. Snow is particularly good at dealing with interactions within a group, and The Masters has been the most highly regarded of his novels. The title refers to two “masters” or heads of a college; after the first one dies, a new one must be elected. It is on this election, involving the votes of thirteen fellows of the college, that the plot centers. The election comes down to two candidates, Jago and Crawford. While Lewis Eliot, now one of the fellows, supports Jago, and while the reader’s sympathies are involved on this side, Snow is careful to avoid making the choice one between good and evil. There are very few outright villains in Snow’s novels, and Crawford is certainly not one. Politically on the left, but personally not so well suited for the mastership, he is contrasted to Jago, whom Eliot finds less appealing politically but much more appealing as a man. Thus, the issue is essentially between personal nature and public character. The different fellows line up on this basis, thereby reflecting their own natures and characters; their ultimate votes demonstrate the balance of these two aspects of personality.

Interestingly, given Snow’s famous dispute, following the publication of The Masters, over “the two cultures,” the literary and the scientific, one might see Jago, a scholar of English literature, as the humanists’ candidate, and Crawford, a member of the Royal Society, as the scientists’. Snow, opposed to the split between the “cultures,” does not have the fellows vote on the basis of this split. Walter Luke, a scientist, judges by nature and sticks with Jago. Francis Getliffe, also a scientist, although recognizing Jago’s virtues, is motivated by “public” principle and supports Crawford. Eustace Pilbrow, a literary scholar, agrees with Getliffe. Nightingale, another scientist, jealous of Crawford’s professional success, initially supports Jago. Paradoxically, Despard- Smith, because he identifies with Jago, supports Crawford.

Having established the initial lineup of votes, Snow skillfully shows the interactions of motives that cause some of them to shift. One particularly important consideration is the question of Jago’s wife; her character, thought to be unsuitable for that of a master’s spouse, becomes an issue in the election. The personal issue here involves another form of “possessive love” and sets up a “resonance” for Eliot, who is ambivalently trapped in his marriage to Sheila. Snow handles the development of the plot and the suspense leading to the election quite effectively. In bringing so many insightful changes on the interactions of the personalities within a small group, Snow wrote what may be his own masterpiece.

In the later volumes of the series, Eliot moves from college to national and international political maneuvers; the implications are that there is not that much difference. Nevertheless, the “Tolstoyan” view of history— that individuals are secondary to the larger forces of history, which is explicitly mentioned more than once in the series—is more pronounced in the later volumes. Snow suggests that with other people, probably the same policies would be carried out, the same forces would operate. Thus, the mechanisms of politics are of primary interest, but to understand them, one must understand the people who work and are worked by them. As Snow once said, one must understand how the world “ticks” if one is to change it for the better.

Corridors of Power

Corridors of Power, the ninth volume in the series, gives the reader a picture of how the high-level decision making that he also described in The New Men and questioned in Science and Government (1961) does operate. However deterministic its underlying historical philosophy, the novel supports the statement of one of its characters that what is important is how something is done, who it is done by, and when it is done.

The story centers on Roger Quaife, a politician committed to an “enlightened” view of the use of atomic weapons. Once again, one sees both the public and private side of a protagonist, the nature and character that interact to form Quaife’s personality; again, however, the nature is essentially a donneé—Quaife is to be taken as found. Ostensibly happy in his marriage, Quaife has a mistress; she is a factor, although not a decisive one, in his political career. Snow is quite good at showing the interactions of career considerations and more personal feelings within the triangle composed of Quaife, his wife, Caro, and his mistress, Ellen. Sex is seen as a relationship, social as well as emotional and physical. In order to present this relationship, however, verisimilitude must be stretched a bit, because Lewis Eliot, the narrator, has to be in places and hear confidences from which one would expect him to be barred. Not only does Eliot learn much about private lives, but also he is rather surprisingly ubiquitous at political councils. Here, in describing some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers, Snow is quite effective, as he is with the presentation of secondary characters, such as the member of Parliament, Sammikins, and the important civil servant, Hector Rose.

After the completion and revision of the Strangers and Brothers series, Snow not only worked on biographical studies—Trollope, The Realists, and The Physicists (1981)—but also continued his novel writing. Although the final volume in the series, Last Things, was diffuse in plotting, he returned, in his final novels, to the use of a strong plot line. Both The Malcontents and A Coat of Varnish are forms of the whodunit, and In Their Wisdom, like The Sleep of Reason, maintains the reader’s interest in the outcome of a law case.

The Malcontents

The Malcontents received generally poor reviews. It does have obvious weaknesses; the dialogue, usually one of Snow’s stronger points, is somewhat unconvincing. Well attuned to the talk of his cohorts, Snow’s ear for the speech of contemporary youth was less acute. A more serious defect is related to the mystery-story requirement of providing a goodly number of suspects. Too many characters are introduced at the beginning; the reader has an initial problem in differentiating them, and the book gets off to a slow start. Once the story is under way, however, the narrative interest is strong.

It involves the interaction of a group of seven young people, planning to take action against the establishment. One of them is known to be an informer. Typically for a Snow novel, to appreciate fully the narrative one must consider the formative aspects of each individual’s personality. Class background, family relations, ideological positions, and love interests all enter in. Diffused through seven characters, however, Snow’s analysis of these factors is somewhat superficial, with the exception of Stephen Freer, whose relationship to the older generation is presented with sensitivity. An underlying sympathy for the ends, if not the means, of the young radicals informs much of the book. This sympathy, while somewhat Olympian, avoids being patronizing and becomes one of the novel’s virtues.

In Their Wisdom

In Their Wisdom is a more successful work. Again, to develop narrative interest, a problem is posed. In this instance, it involves an argument over a will and the results of a trial over the disputed legacy. Just as the reader’s sympathy is involved, in The Masters, on Jago’s side, here there is no question of whom to support in the contest. Julian, a selfish and opportunistic young man, is Snow’s closest approach to a clear villain. By simplifying some of the characters, Snow is able to devote more attention to the others. Jenny is particularly interesting, different from characters in Snow’s earlier books. In showing her life of genteel poverty and the effect on her of the trial and its outcome, Snow once again effectively intertwines the personal and the public.

A Coat of Varnish

Snow’s last novel, A Coat of Varnish, was a return to the detective-story genre of his first book.Aless pure example of this genre than Death Under Sail, however, it is somewhat unsatisfactorily considered simply as a mystery. The title refers to a line within the book, to the effect that civilization is a thin coat of varnish over barbarism, a notion relevant also to The Sleep of Reason. A fairly interesting cast of characters is introduced, but none of them is treated with the depth of analysis of which Snow was capable. Here, character is secondary to plot, and plot itself is used to comment on society. To try to work out who is guilty, one must understand motives: money, sex, and power. In understanding these motives, one gains, Snow expects, an understanding of society. Although this is one of Snow’s weaker novels, certainly not ending his career triumphantly, it does manage a degree of fulfillment of the Horatian formula, to delight and to instruct.

Perhaps one should ask for no more. Throughout his career as a novelist, Snow, although with varying degrees of success, never failed to provide a number of intelligent readers with these twin satisfactions. This may not put him in the ranks of a Leo Tolstoy or a Proust; it is, nevertheless, no small accomplishment.


Other major works
Plays: A View over the Bridge, pr. 1950; Family Party, pb. 1951 (with Pamela Hansford Johnson); Her Best Foot Forward, pb. 1951 (with Johnson); The Pigeon with the Silver Foot, pb. 1951 (with Johnson); Spare the Rod, pb. 1951 (with Johnson); The Supper Dance, pb. 1951 (with Johnson); To Murder Mrs. Mortimer, pb. 1951 (with Johnson); The Public Prosecutor, pr. 1967 (with Johnson; adaptation).
Nonfiction: Richard Aldington: An Appreciation, 1938; Writers and Readers of the Soviet Union, 1943; The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, 1959 (revised as Two Cultures and a Second Look, 1964); The Moral Un-neutrality of Science, 1961; Science and Government, 1961; A Postscript to Science and Government, 1962; Magnanimity, 1962; C. P. Snow: A Spectrum— Science, Criticism, Fiction, 1963; Variety of Men, 1967; The State of Siege, 1969; Public Affairs, 1971; Trollope: His Life and Art, 1975; The Realists, 1978; The Physicists, 1981.

De la Mothe, John. C. P. Snow and the Struggle of Modernity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Eriksson, Bo H. T. The “Structuring Forces” of Detection: The Cases of C. P. Snow and John Fowles. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist&Wiksell, 1995.
Heptonstall, Geoffrey. “Venturing the Real: The Significance of C. P. Snow.” Contemporary Review 290 (Summer, 2008): 224-232.
Karl, Frederick S. C. P. Snow: The Politics of Conscience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.
Ramanathan, Suguna. The Novels of C. P. Snow: ACritical Introduction. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Shusterman, David. C. P. Snow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Snow, Philip. A Time of Renewal: Clusters of Characters, C. P. Snow, and Coups. New York: Radcliffe Press, 1998.
Thale, Jerome. C. P. Snow. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.

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1 reply

  1. I am nearing the end of a return to C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers”. I first discovered Snow, and fell in love with the detached voice of Lewis Elliot, when I was 15 years old. I was able to get the ensuing novels from the local library as they were published right up until 1966 when I left England for the USA. After that I lost touch with Snow as there was not as much interest in the US, and a marriage occurred and then a family.
    More recently, I was able to acquire the three volume omnibus editions and thus set out to re-read every one of the S and B novels plus Corridors of Power, et al.
    I think I am beginning to realize why I found Snow’s series so fascinating and I can confirm that when I was a very young reader, I was right about something special. Eliot’s restrained telling of his own tale is believable proving that Snow’s development of characters works and while it can be awkward to piece together the “gaps” and “overlaps” in the omnibus edition, the strength of Eliot’s own personality and the way he tells his story make it manageable. Those lighted windows have remained with me all my life and whether literally or metaphorically, lighted windows have been very important to one who has been forced to walk through “dark streets and alleys” where lighted windows mean hope, safety, comfort, and, as my beloved Lewis might say, “the only way home”.
    Suzanna Byrne.

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