::Literate Blather::
Monday, January 21, 2008
Literary Criticism: Paul Theroux's "World's End"
(Summary: An American businessman moves to London with his wife and son. They live in a district called World’s End. Robarge loves his ex-patriot status and the isolation of his new home which he considers: “a sheltered life in the best sense.” Robarge returns from a business trip with a kite for his son, waking him in the middle of the night to give it to him. The six-year-old boy wants to take the kite to Box Hill the next day to fly it. At breakfast, Robarge is oblivious to his wife’s distracted and unfriendly tone. When she breaks down into tears, he pretends not to notice. He takes the boy to Box Hill and learns that the boy has been there before with his wife and her new “friend.” Distraught by the possibility that his wife is having an affair, Robarge enlists the boy as a spy and then flees on a business trip. When he returns it is clear the boy has switched sides to his mother. That night, very late, his wife leaves him.)

Analysis: Author Paul Theroux is a writer with a ham-fisted attitude. It’s difficult to dislike a writer with the gumption to blast celebrities like Bono and Angelina Jolie in an op-ed for the New York Times as “mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.”

Theroux is a writer with strong opinions, but his bombast isn’t evident in “World’s End” – an amazingly subtle short story about the quiet and ferocious destruction of a family. Robarge, an American, is an executive at a drilling equipment supplier based in London. He’s a self-obsessed, deluded man incapable of empathizing with those around him – especially his wife, Kathy, and young son, Richard.

The beauty of the story is that Theroux lets Robarge’s character slowly unfold before readers – who at the beginning of the story have no reason not to trust the perceptions of Robarge (the story is told from his point of view). But it becomes clear that Robarge has created an illusion of familiar tranquility.

“World’s End” is so powerful because readers start out in the same place as Robarge – completely clueless. But as the narrative continues, readers begin to realize that Robarge not an innocent. In fact, if this were a murder story, he’d be the killer.

The best part of the story is how Theroux – with the precision of a dentist – turns the readers against his protagonist. At first, we’re ready to jump to Robarge’s defense. We’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but by the end of the story that isn’t possible anymore. We realize that Robarge is a manipulative coward and a selfish, ill-tempered bully.

It’s a wild ride for a story that on the surface is about a father bringing his son to a hill to fly a kite.

At the beginning, Robarge revels in the isolation of his family at the aptly named “World’s End” neighborhood in London. This passage is very telling: “He considered marriage the quietest enactment of sharing, connubial exclusiveness the most private way to live – a sheltered life in the best sense.”

Robarge wants to place his family on a shelf – away from the real world; a knick-knack to be admired on those occasions when he has the time. Our first hint that all may not be well is when Robarge notes that his wife has slimmed down and gotten a new haircut. Meanwhile, he has gained weight – so much that he lumbers like a fat man.

Theroux sprinkles hints throughout the story to paint a troubled portrait of Robarge. For example, he returns from a business trip after midnight and wakes up his six-year-old son because he wants the pleasure of giving him a kite. Then he crawls into bed with his wife who says “You’re back” and then turns away from him.


It gets worse in the morning. Kathy is visibly unhappy – flat and unfocused during breakfast. The couple has a tiff – although it becomes clear that Robarge is unaware they are fighting. His wife leaves the room in tears and Robarge pretends not to notice.

Flying the kite with his son at Box Hill, Robarge and the boy are continually awkward with each other. They are uncomfortable and the boy is a spoiled brat. Yet like everything else, Robarge seems oblivious to this flaw in his son.

Quite accidentally, Robarge discovers that his son has been to the hill before with his wife and her new “friend.” The man has been around enough that the boy actually talks like him.

Robarge comes up with a plan. Afraid – is it fear or cowardice? – to confront his wife with her affair, he enlists his son as a spy. To set the stage, he concocts another business trip and flees to Holland for nearly a week.

While away, the boy has confessed to his mother. The boy now vehemently denies that his mother has a friend. His son is so fearful of his father that he has hidden a knife under his pillow.

That night, while struggling to sleep, his wife and son leave him. The ending packs a wallop:

“His fear left him and he was penetrated by the fake vitality of insomnia. After an hour he decided that what he had heard, if anything, was a thief leaving the house, not breaking in. Too late, too far, too dark, he thought; and knew now they were all lost."

Read our literary criticism of James Joyce's "Counterpart" here

Read our literary criticism of Anton Chekov's "The Dead Body" here

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