"A disciple has crossed over by water": an analysis of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria quartet in its Egyptian historical and intellectual contexts

  • Mike Diboll

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This dissertation examines Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet in its various Egyptian contexts. It contests the idea that the Alexandria of the Quartet is essentially a city of the imagination which bears little or no relation to the real city of history. It argues that various strata of Alexandrian history, from antiquity to the nineteen- fifties, are deeply embedded in Durrell’s Quartet. Of particular interest is the tetralogy’s representation of the history of Egypt’s Wafdist independence movement in the years 1919 - 1952, and Britain’s responses to it. The dissertation argues that the tetralogy can be read as an allegorical treatment of historical events that took place in colonial Egypt. Chapter One of the dissertation provides an over-view of Durrell’s Quartet and of the main critical and scholarly approaches which have been used in the study of the tetralogy, Chapter Two continues the exposition, with particular reference to T.S. Eliot’s concept of “tradition”, and Edward Said’s “Orientalism” as keys for the understanding of the Quartet. This chapter then applies these two concepts to the analysis of the Quartet, and proposes a “tradition of Orientalism” with the tetralogy as the paradigmal text of “late Orientalism”. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is proposed as an important precussor. Chapter Three examines the ways in which the Quartet makes use of the history of Alexandria from the city’s founding by the Ptolomies until early modern times, with particular reference to the British occupation of Egypt 1882 - 1956. The chapter then examines the tetralogy’s treatment of British Imperial selfhood and the Egyptian “Other”. Chapter Four examines the Alexandria Quartet, in particular Mountolive, in parallel to the history of the Egyptian Wafd party and the struggle for Egyptian independence. It argues that Mountolive should be read as an allegorical treatment of events that took place in Egypt between the years 1919 - 56. Chapter five investigates the relationship between the Alexandria Quartet and the three phases of Durrell’s “Egyptian” poetry: that written between 1938 - 40, which utilises themes from ancient Egyptian mythology; that written during Durrell’s Egyptian exile between 1941 - 45; and that written in the immediate post-war period 1945 - 50. In this way the historical context brought up to the early nineteen-fifties. Chapter Six concludes the dissertation by asserting the importance of the Alexandria Quartet as a key literary text from a period that saw the end of Empire and the beginnings of de-colonisation, and argues that the tetralogy should be given an enhanced status in the study of colonial and post-colonial English writing
Date of Award2000
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorPatrick Quinn (Supervisor)

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