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Neil Gunn: The Serpent (US: Man Goes Alone)

Tom – later to be known as The Philosopher – comes from a small Scottish community which, during the course of the novel, undergoes significant change as the world around changes. Tom is an instrument of these changes in his village (he promotes socialism and evolution (hence the nickname), is well-read and very much in favour of commercial and technical advances). But, as this is a novel, Tom has conflicts, both because of his views and in his personal life.

Initially, he goes to Glasgow to work in a shop but soon graduates to the backroom where he repairs clocks and watches under the guidance of Douglas, who also introduces him to socialism and evolution. He returns home, however, when his father has a stroke. Though the father survives he is now a crotchety old man and Tom and father repeatedly clash, to the chagrin of the typical, heart-of-gold novel mother. Tom sets up a shop, introducing to the village, among other things, a catalogue selling, bicycles, vehicles for hire and a variety of mechanical repairs. He falls in love but she has a brief fling with the vicar’s son. When she becomes pregnant, the wicked son runs off to Canada, despite Tom’s efforts to force him to marry her. She, of course, melodramatically dies.

Gunn does slip in some clichés but what he is concerned with here is showing how his Scotland has changed and also in showing how that agent of change thinks and behaves. The strength of Tom’s character and his views in battling against those with old-fashioned views make this novel one of Gunn’s more interesting ones.

Publishing history

First published 1943 by Faber and Faber