Casual Vacancy 12: Authenticity and Hypocrisy — Penetration, Suffering, and the Birth of Consciousness in JKR’s Latest

Pagford’s village existentialist is the adolescent nihilist named Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, the kid so cool that he doesn’t care what clique or gang you belong to, he can relate to you just as he is. He’s hipper in his own way than Ferris Bueller.

Fats’ byword and the standard by which he measure real against unreal is “authenticity.” He values the authentic because it is what it is without pretension or feigned substance; it is the opposite of everything which hypocrisy is not.

If Fats’ end is any indication, though, Vacancy is anything but a celebration of or advocacy piece for the existential appreciation of authenticity. Fats winds up a remorseful young man burdened by his responsibility for the deaths of Krystall and Robby, lives that were lost because of his indifference to the situations and reality of others (especially those for whom ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘authenticity’ are abstractions they cannot afford to parse).

The birth of consciousness that Fats experiences in his remorse, his discovery of a greater Self than his delusional individuality, is a transformation that Casual Vacancy seems designed to deliver to us all. We are invited into the thinking, relatively narrow and broad, of a host of characters of great diversity. I think we each become more aware through reading Mugglemarch of our own narrow mindedness and selfishness, not to mention our failings and potential as parents, siblings, friends, children, and members of our communities. The chief virtue of Austen and Dickens protagonists, mental ‘penetration’ or insightful sympathy, is fostered in us as we reflect on our pathetic images in the story mirror.

I ask your comments and corrections, of course!


  1. I think its interesting that Fats uses the term ‘authenticity’ in the novel to describe what most of us (and I cannot think, Rowling herself) would brand selfishness. In reality, Fats is less concerned in authenticity than the appearance of such – he rebels because he feels it is cool. Whether that ‘coolness’ is recognised by others is merely a bonus – what is important (as with so many teenagers, as I’m sure we remember!) is that you are able to look inside YOURSELF and realise your own ‘coolness’. Perhaps his attempt at ‘authenticity’ is also a cry for help – a cry out against his concerns over his adoption. Along that theme, it may be an attempt to remove himself as far as possible from Cubby, who’s OCD means he is constantly concerned with issues that are fictional/false and therefore ‘inauthentic’.

    In the end, Fats embraces inauthenticity by lying about posting all the comments on the council website – Rowling shows that not being constantly ‘authentic’/telling the truth can bring benefits to other people (removing the threat of discovery from Andrew and Sukhvinder). Perhaps Parminder’s outburst in the council meeting can also be seen as a truth that would be better unspoken – although her comments about Howard’s weight are true (and indeed a fitting parallel to the temptation of drug use), steering away from this truth might have done more to help the Fields.

    It is an interesting word to bring to the fore-front in a novel where so many people are ‘inauthentic’, in that they are more concerned about how they appear to others than being true to themselves. One of the few characters who could possibly be deemed authentic is Krystal herself. Lacking any of the socialisation that filters normal conversation, Krystal continually speaks her mind and this is her greatest strength as an individual (such as her comments before the rowing match that bring her teammates such strength).

    Anyway, fairly rambling, but just a few thoughts that popped into my brain on reading your post!

  2. Hmmm….. I seem to have made contradicting statements there! 🙂 Oh well, I’d be interested in people’s opinions. Is Rowling recommending a world of truth, or white lies, or a reality in which both are needed? Perhaps it is merely the purpose behind the statements that has the main importance, rather than the statements themselves?

  3. Louise Freeman says

    I’m only partially through the book, so maybe the answer will become obvious, but what do you think the significance of the “Fats” nickname is? Stuart isn’t fat, and the nickname is one that is typically the very antithesis of “cool.” The fat boys of Harry Potter (Dudley, Neville) were certainly not the socially astute ones.

  4. Fats is primarily a follower of Nietzsche, not of the existentialists. In the passage in the book where his point of view is fully expressed he is said to have found a quote in a book on his parent’s bookshelf. This quote is from Ecce Homo, by Nietzsche. Even more interesting is the fact that this section of the book is where an abandonment of traditional Christian morality is suggested for the sake of “truth”. This section is Fats’s philosophy in a nutshell.

  5. I don’t think Jo is recommending anything in particular, but merely asking us to ask ourselves what our responsibility is to each other. Fats’ quest for individuality is typical of the young. She shows that we cannot live in community if we aren’t taught or grow out of that illusion. We cannot separate ourselves from others even if it’s only due to consequences we share. In Kay we see someone who seems to care about people in the Fields, but ignoring the very real needs of her own daughter. Perhaps she feels the needs of the poor and marginalized are greater, but she is wrong if she fails the one under her own roof who is her first responsibility. All of the characters more or less are self-centered like Fats, consumed by their own petty interests and unhappy as a result. They all want something, but fall short in the giving department. Barry, on the other hand, is often described as good-natured, laughing, kind, etc. He seems like the only person capable of joy and she isn’t subtle about the fact that he’s the only one who gives of himself to others. Even his wife feels cheated. And Ruth’s giving nature is spoiled by martyrdom. There are undoubtedly other people in this village who are more stable or happy or religious, but Jo is writing about a specific group who are out of touch with the world outside their circle. Their lives contracted inward and only conscious when they bump into each other. It reminded me of the Centaurs in the ForbiddenForest who thought they could avoid evil by turning their backs on the world. Crystal is the light that flits around offering an opportunity for them to see. She is the only one who seemed alive and yet the more we got to know these people, the more clear it became that she would not survive. Is this Jo’s message? Does she wonder if it’s too late now that we have ignored problems for so long?

  6. I am wondering if JK Rowling is doing a send up to existentialism by setting up a parallel to a crucial scene in “The Fall” by Albert Camus. In that novel, a successful lawyer is walking over a bridge one night after a visit to his mistress when he hears someone jump into a canal. He stops. The person screams. But he does not try to rescue the person. He walks on. because he is afraid of risking his safety. Later he struggles with guilt over the fact that he did not try to help.

    Fats appears to be the existentialist in “A Casual Vacancy”. Throughout the book his quest is to be truly authentic. After their tryst by the river Fats hears Krystal screaming and searching for Robbie. But Like the lawyer in “The Fall” he leaves without trying to help. On the other hand, Sukhvinder, whom Fats has always tormented, starts to cross the bridge and sees Robbie in the water. She calls out to Krystal that he is in the water and then without thinking jumps in to try to save him.

    I think JKR is trying to challenge her readers to confront the gaping difference between compassion and self centered authenticity. She wants us to see the drastically different effects these approaches to life have on us as individuals and as members of an interconnected community.

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