Casual Vacancy 5: Barry Fairbrother and the Political Parable

Ms. Rowling suggested in 2007 that her next work would be a “political fairy tale,” though we don’t know if that pronouncement came before or after her in-flight inspiration about the subject matter and scenery of Casual Vacancy. Caught up as we are necessarily with the  realism of Krystall Weedon’s nightmare existence and descent to death, it’s easy to neglect the caricature-laden, even Dickenesque quality of this realism which makes it parable-like and an evident satire of the United Kingdom and its 21st Century political life.

The dot-to-dots here, to risk a translation of the correspondences I think we are meant to make as might in Gulliver’s Travels or Animal Farm, aren’t much of a reach even for an American who is essentially clueless about United Kingdom politics. Howard Mollinson is a story transparency for John Bull, the Whig-Tory pompous middle-class cipher of all things bourgeois and English. He wears the trappings of state in the novel, and, if he is not officially the Mayor of Padsford, he is the principal power holder.

His wife is the Queen, alas, in Brenda mode, whose blindness to her licentious husband’s more intimate relationship with his female business partner (the Capitalist regime ‘in bed’ with government) makes her as comically self-important and a clueless accessory to the evil done by Howard. She dreams of meeting the Queen because Ms. Rowling wants us to make this leap of imaginative association easily; Elizabeth II is no more Queen to her people, Ms. Rowling is all but saying, than the Middle Class deli wife of Padsford and her family’s political myopia.

In this allegorical depiction of the post socialist UK, of course, we need a ‘Late Great’ saint whom we find in Barry Fairbrother, who, though his name is meant to point to Barack Obama — ‘Barry’ is what President Obama was called by friends until well into his college years and, forgive me for translating the obvious, ‘Fair Brother’ is a name for a black man who acts like a fair-skinned person (think ‘Oreo‘) — is not meant to embody liberal disappointment with the Hope and Change candidate of 2008. At least not exclusively! Given Ms. Rowling’s familiarity with the life story and personal traits of Gordon Brown, he is the lamented, fallen star of the Left, whose biography, if anything but rags-to-riches economically, is about a heroic rise from the far periphery of British politics (Scotland!) as a champion of the poor.

The meaning of the parable is in the finish. John Bull denies the rights and needs of both the Weedon family, the disenfranchised other, and the Empire’s Legacy, the medical Sikhs who hold the cure to UK parochialism and self-adoration, so, when he needs public support when his life is in crisis consequent to the over-weight caused by his self-celebration (the need for an ambulance and doctor at his heart attack the morning after his birthday party), the doctor has been suspended and her life-saving heart surgeon-husband has been offended and the means of his deliverance has been sent to help their daughter’s attempted rescue of the drowned child John Bull despised. England winds up on life support, neither truly dead or alive, with the Queen and her son (David Cameron?) left as the gormless political players in charge.

I trust our HogPro All-Pro friends on the right side of the pond will refine or deny this exegesis as appropriate. Thanks in advance for that!


  1. Katherine Grimes says

    I hadn’t thought of the Barry-Barack Obama connection, but it works!

  2. This post makes me wonder whether Casual Vacancy is Rowling’s homage to Mansfield Park, rather than Middlemarch, as I was taught that MP is an allegory for Austin’s view of British politics at the time. This interpretation also fits with my theory that the character of Strike is Rowling’s attempt to try her hand at creating “a character no one but myself will much like,” a la Emma.
    I do think your connection between Barry and Barack is convincing, and it makes me wonder whether the political allegory is pointing towards international politics, so the Fields is Africa, and the UK is arguing about whether they have a responsibility to provide care and support for the global poor by recognizing that the African people are indeed Britain’s own.

  3. So, now I cannot stop thinking about this idea! Is this book Rowling’s musings about what might have happened in British politics if Obama had lost the 2012 election?

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