Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"Occult Sympathy": Geoffrey Household's Watcher in the Shadows and Dance of the Dwarfs

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"Occult Sympathy": Geoffrey Household's Watcher in the Shadows and Dance of the Dwarfs

Article excerpt

Drawing on the Edwardian adventure tale's theme of hunter and hunted exemplified by John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male (1939), his best-known thriller, dramatizes the exploits of an unnamed narrator who, after unsuccessfully attempting to assassinate an unspecified Central European demagogue, is literally run to ground in the Dorset countryside. A belated sequel titled Rogue Justice (1982) christens this persona Raymond Ingelram, fictionally the descendant of fifteen British generations whose aristocratic standing has been marginalized by interwar upheavals in the social order.1 Of immediate interest, though, is what transpires at the end of Rogue Male. After eleven days of being besieged in his subterranean redoubt by pseudonymous Major QuiveSmith, an anglicized Nazi agent, Ingelram contrives a ballista and kills his adversary by impaling him with an iron spike. Noticing their facial resemblance, the displaced representative of English nobility then alters his appearance to replicate the photographic image in QuiveSmith's forged passport and thereby ensure his departure from the United Kingdom disguised as a Latin American "gentleman" still intent on completing his earlier mission (181).

Such plot-driven (re)doubling differs from the familiar nineteenthcentury topos of the Doppelgänger. In James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Double (1846), and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), to cite only a few novels, the projected "other" inversely mirrors the putative "self." Narratives of this kind usually introduce us early on to the operative binary and its reversal, thereby proving fertile texts for psychoanalytic critics.2

Things are less predictable, however, in the modern thriller. We thus do not discover until Rogue Male's dénouement that its protagonist is prepared to abandon his ancestral identity for Quive-Smith's fraudulent impersonation or that, once he has adopted the ruse, Ingelram will pursue again his appointment with destiny. The governing dynamic of this mode of fiction, consequently, is far removed from the orientation of Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903) in which we encounter valorized emblems of Britannia's inevitable triumph over the combined forces of darkness. Dispensing with such reductive polarities, the genre of the thriller as we know it today first flourished during the 1930s when, in the aftermath of World War I, former constructs of inviolability such as the morally unassailable nation-state, universally shared codes of value, and an integrated, perspicuous "self" were rapidly unraveling.3 The best of Household's books reflect these changes while sometimes explicitly framing them in relation to manifestations of Edwardian stability.

His character Raymond Ingelram, for example, deviates from such "Clubland heroes" as Buchan's Richard Hannay and Childers's Arthur H. Davies in two important ways.4 First, whereas Rogue Male depicts him as "a bored and wealthy Englishman" in the mold of Hannay (1), Rogue Justice casts Ingelram as the offspring of a British father and Austrian mother, no doubt in part to account for how his bilingual fluency facilitates his reentry into the Third Reich. But beyond such practical considerations Household seems committed in several of his productions to denationalizing their protagonists, as though to intimate the obsolescence of ethnocentric or chauvinistic justifications for individual action. The second difference is that the first-person narrator of both Rogue Male and Rogue Justice figures as a moral casualty haunted by his wartime experience. Household's 1939 novel suggests that this trauma is linked not only to Ingelram's torturous ordeal after his initial capture but also to a subsequent crisis of conscience because his assassination attempt was motivated by the Fascists' murder of his fiancée. …

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