Barchester Towers does what Trollope wanted it to do very well: it is a novel which analyses man in his social functioning, particularly with reference to church politics and different religious and moral doctrines actually function or are used in society. Its technique is often Fieldingesque; it makes a sharp use of caricature. The only chapter where we travel at length into someone’s mind is the one which introduces Mr Arabin, and thereafter he is mostly seen from the outside.
The analyses of Mr Slope are highly intermittent and at times as reductive as the portrait of archdeacon Grantly in The Warden. There’s as frequent as usage of the mock-heroic and literary allusion as we found in The Warden— though perhaps not as jarring since it occurs throughout the book. Barchester Towers moves into Thackeray’s vein: Trollope as showman, parading his presence as our storyteller in order to undercut any strong emotions we might feel towards the subject matter. Religion, church politics, sex, feminism are touchy matters.
How about this: in Barchester Towers Trollope performed for his century in the way Guareschi performed in the 20th in
: the satiric tales of Don Camillo are similarly fable-like in their final effect. It is true to say that such caution leaves a text open to the accusations of superficiality and coarseness. There is something coarse about the presentation of the Signora Neroni and Slope. Italy
Though we also felt it was not believable within the terms of the fiction itself that the Signora Neroni should really attract Arabin in the way she did, beckon to Eleanor and operate Eleanor as a puppet-master, and make for the happy ending. That the reader doesn’t quite think about how poor Madeline is our deus ex machina, getting rid of Slope, marrying people off to one another testifies to Trollope’s skill in making her feel all-powerful for the moment. Then he can dismiss her as a helpless poverty-stricken cripple. So he works his character both ways, but the scene between the Signora and Eleanor did not quite work for us.
In another excellent book on Trollope’s fiction, The Unofficial Trollope, Bill Overton says the unofficial Trollope is the man who wrote so much fiction that is not easily susceptible of categorisation, that escapes our pigeonholing because he can show how the individual mind is ‘bathed in the vision of the community’, how the identities of people in private cannot be hidden in public to those who can see what is in front of them - and it’s Trollope’s function to make us see preternaturally what in life is barely visible. Another theme in Trollope, according to Overton, is ‘the inter-penetrability of minds’.
However, the brilliance of Trollope’s treatment of the interiors of personalities in situations which are complex and the reader is allowed to come up close to his characters occur in many other novels.
We find both in Dr Thorne and The Bertrams immediately afterwards. Tolstoi wrote of the latter, it ‘killed’ him; he wept, he was so envious of Trollope’s power over the reader, he could barely so go on working on his own stuff.
The deanship of Barchester is offered to Mr. Harding, but he refuses to accept the post. Archdeacon Grantley maneuvers to have the deanship offered to Mr. Arabin, who becomes the new Dean of Barchester. Mr. Harding shows kindness and concern toward Mr. Quiverful by helping him to begin duties as Warden of the Hospital. The novel ends by showing that Mr. Harding’s sincerity and humility make him different from the other clergymen in Barchester.
An important theme of the novel is that of personal ambition. Archdeacon Grantley is ambitious to become Bishop after his father’s death. Dr. Proudie, on his appointment as Bishop, is eager to become Archbishop. Mr. Slope is ambitious to have control over the power and patronage of the diocese of Barchester. The novel shows the corrupting nature of ambition, and of the quest for power.
Trollope’s major technique in the novel is that of comic irony. The manipulation and intrigue practiced by the clergy of Barchester is revealed, and the honesty and integrity they are supposed to represent is contrasted with the scheming nature of their quest for influence and power. The novel shows the worldliness of the clergy, and exposes the hypocrisy of the Church and of Victorian society.