JG Farrell: master of black humour and humanity being derailed

Farrell found in British empire’s fall an apt metaphor for his view of human condition

It seems obvious to say that JG Farrell's Empire series – extending, as it does, over Troubles, set during the Irish guerilla war for independence; The Siege of Krishnapur, set during the Sepoy Mutiny in India; The Singapore Grip, which takes place as Singapore is falling to the Japanese during the second World War; and the unfinished novel The Hill Station – is about the decline of the British empire.

But, more importantly, it, like Farrell's novels that preceded it, is about the human condition. Farrell expresses a very bleak view of the human condition in the form of Ehrendorf's Second Law, proposed in The Singapore Grip: "In human affairs things tend inevitably to go wrong. Or, to put it another way: The human situation, in general and in particular, is slightly worse (ignoring an occasional hiccup in the graph) at any given moment than at any preceding moment."

When Farrell turned his attention to the British empire, he found in its decline an apt metaphor for this gloomy view of the human condition. Just as the British empire is pestered by rebels and subversives, all sorts of things over which human beings like to believe that they have some control rebel against them or subvert their wills. As the British empire is losing its grip over its colonies, so humans in Farrell’s books are losing their grip over all that is important to them.

As the British empire is losing its grip over its colonies, so humans in Farrell's books are losing their grip

Ideas – generally, the ideals or abstractions by which people make sense of their world and define their place in it – were very important to Farrell but he distrusted them. Ideas are among the things that rebel against people: they prove false, they are espoused hypocritically, or the characters’ faith in them is destroyed.


The Collector in The Siege of Krishnapur, who starts out believing in a whole slew of ideas – from such lofty ones as Civilization and Progress to down-to-earth things such as Crop Rotation (the Collector thinks of his cherished ideas in capital letters) – is stripped of his certainties one by one as the siege progresses, like a fox stealing hens from the henhouse. Matthew Webb in The Singapore Grip, who loves to think about and discuss abstract ideas, comes to feel in the midst of the disaster overtaking Singapore that all this cogitation is a waste of time and that the most meaningful thing he can do is to take practical action to mitigate the situation – in his case, fighting the fires ignited by bombs. Matthew ends up in a Japanese prison camp, stripped of his lofty ideas and reduced to basic concerns for survival.

Material objects

Symbols and ceremonies, the material things that represent ideas, also fail people in the Empire series. Symbols as material objects become tattered, worn, dirty and broken, or appear ludicrous. Sometimes, symbols even attack people, as when the Union Jack falls on the Collector and almost smothers him. Ceremonies, too, are exposed to ridicule and fail to convey the meanings they are meant to.

An outstanding example is Blackett and Webb's intended jubilee celebration in The Singapore Grip, with which just about everything possible goes wrong. In particular, the ceremonial rules of war are upset by the bloody mess on the ground. Tea parties are a British ceremony of sorts; and the Empire series is full of disastrous tea parties, especially the one in Troubles in which the tea table is split in two by a falling metal letter M. Abstractions such as the Spirit of the Times, the Invisible Hand, and the Occidental Mind have a tendency to become so real that they persecute people.

Sometimes, symbols even attack people, as when the Union Jack falls on the Collector and almost smothers him

Language and communication also go wrong in the human condition. They may be literally destroyed, as when scientific notes are devoured by white ants. Language communicates incompletely and is subject to misunderstanding. Farrell's characters experience problems using metaphors. And, indeed, most of the metaphors in the Empire series are disturbing, mixed, overly drawn-out, or downright incongruous; this is not a flaw in Farrell's writing, but a deliberate tactic to show that means of communication cannot be trusted. In the same spirit, Farrell gleefully uses clichés, which are usually considered something to be avoided.

Dead bodies

Material things also worsen the human condition and thwart human beings, including their own bodies. The Empire novels are full of diseased, mutilated, slaughtered, dying and dead bodies. Dr Ryan in Troubles is always musing on the fragility and temporariness of the human body. But our bodies can thwart us in more trivial but embarrassing ways, by stinking and sweating. Farrell even presents body parts as acting with a will of their own to thwart the will of their owners, as when Monty's errant hand shoves a forkful of fish into his mouth as he is opening it to expostulate. Human beings can be food, even for other humans; Farrell's novels are full of imagery of cannibalism.

Monty's errant hand shoves a forkful of fish into his mouth as he is opening it to expostulate

In the Empire series, the land is inimical to human beings: the rampant vegetation in the Palm Court and the overgrown grounds of the Majestic Hotel; the dusty, empty plains but also the uncontrollable vegetation of the rainy season in India; and the sinister jungles of Malaysia. Possessions are the other material things that fail people in these novels.

The Possessions are almost a character in The Siege of Krishnapur, getting in the way during the siege, alternately blessed and cursed by the Collector, and finally being used for defensive purposes that are often absurdly at odds with their original lofty symbolic meanings. Possessions are also very likely to possess their human possessor.

In Farrell's Empire novels, things go wrong with the human condition at an alarming rate, and most of the things that human beings count on fail them – their ideas, their symbols and ceremonies, language and communication, and their bodies, lands and possessions. Yet, grim as these books are, they are made fun to read by Farrell's lively sense of black humour and remarkably creative ways with words.

Rebecca Ziegler is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University and author of JG Farrell’s Empire Novels: The Decline and Fall of the Human Condition (Four Courts Press)