Plumb: The unsurprising hypocrisy of an Important White Man

Plumb, Maurice Gee, 1978

  • New Zealand, #6
  • Kindle, £6.99 from
  • Read: May 2015
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: The disillusioned adult children of narcissists

San Diego, 2005
San Diego, 2005

If you asked the narrator of Plumb what the book is about, he would tell you it’s the story of his struggle to devote his life to his ideals, and the sacrifices he made to live by his principles, supported by the deep love and understanding between himself and his late wife, and their unstinting pursuit of their shared goals. But the genius of this book is that through his voice the reader discerns a different tale–that of a selfish hypocrite and the irreparable damage he does to his family. A man who spends all his time contemplating the nature of God and Love (in capital letters) while neglecting and withholding from his wife and children, forcing them all to live lives of poverty and hardship while he takes the best of everything. A man who is extremely harsh in his judgment of others, but entirely forgiving of himself (though he wouldn’t believe it); who spends his whole life in an academic exploration of the human soul, and somehow fails to have even a basic grasp of human nature. He is so believable—we have all met people like this. They are infuriating.

San Diego, 2005

And yet to some extent it feels like a minor work, a portrait of a single person without a wider resonance. The focus is narrow. The book was engaging while I read it, but it hasn’t stayed with me; until sitting down to write this post I haven’t thought about it since I finished it. Perhaps it is simply too close to the European literary tradition: it reads like a lesser work by E.M. Forster or perhaps Thoreau, after whom I suspect the character of George Plumb may have been partly modeled. At the very least, this tradition of Important White Men is the one in which Plumb sees himself continuing, and the only one that he values. I quite like the work of the turn-of-the-century white guys myself (well, at least, I was quite partial to Forster and his ilk in high school. I never took to Thoreau), but I’m not sure there’s much more to be said in that area. Plumb’s hypocrisy doesn’t come as much of a revelation to the modern reader.

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