Observing the boundaries: Theme and technique in the novels of Barbara Pym

Mary Jeanne Knochel, Purdue University


This study of the novels of the British author Barbara Pym (1913-1980) argues that her best work is her least characteristic. Investigation of the term "Pymish" describes her distinctive voice, introduces her usual themes, depicts her specialized use of language, and reveals the voyeuristic content of her writing. Her typical novels borrow from and are bounded by the traditions of English literature, the ritual of the Anglican Church, and the conventions of upper-middle class society. Windows and thresholds have both literal and figurative significance. Writing about curious spinsters who cautiously observe the lives of others, the author adopted visual techniques of anthropology and cinema and adapted literary language by quotation and allusion. After publishers rejected her seventh "Pymish" novel, the author spent years perfecting two experimental novels which are superior to her earlier work. Close readings of The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and Quartet in Autumn (1977) assess the artistic achievement. An examination of Pym's last novel, A Few Green Leaves (1980), serves as summary.




Rowe, Purdue University.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Literature

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