Places: The Sunlight Dialogues

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Mid-1960’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Batavia

*Batavia Sunlight Dialogues, The (ba-TAY-vee-uh). Large town in western New York, near the Great Lakes. Author John Gardner was born in Batavia and spent most of his youth there. His novel The Resurrection (1966) creates a Batavia that geographically resembles the Batavia he knew. Unlike The Resurrection, whose protagonist leaves and returns to Batavia and contrasts his idealized memory of the town with the present reality of its changes, the central characters in The Sunlight Dialogue are life-long residents of Batavia. They notice its small changes gradually.

Batavia is a nondescript backdrop, familiar to most people even if they have never been to the town itself; it is a typical town of the mid-1960’s. Batavia serves as the typical middle-class American town with typical middle-American virtues and vices, a perfect setting in which to explore the effect of the changing times on individual characters. The marks of the changes that are affecting the rest of the nation at this time become evident: an influx of new residents of different races and nationalities, a rise in violence and drinking, changes in labor and the work ethic. The town cannot cope with these changes; it is dying and decaying, as are many of its citizens in this novel.

Placing the novel’s magical, mysterious plot in this realistic setting grounds it and makes it easier to relate to, though not entirely believable. Batavia faces a confusing and brilliant terror that is both new and familiar. The Sunlight Man is a former resident of Batavia whose return after an absence of fifteen years brings new questions to the town and its police chief. He personifies the questions he asks about religion, sex, race, and politics, and police chief Fred Clumly personifies Batavia’s reaction to these questions. All those who interact with the Sunlight Man are forced to examine how they look at these important questions. Clumly, the representative of law and order, is unable to keep order, first in his own station, then in his town, and finally in his conception of the universe in general.

The farmlands surrounding Batavia are the last remnant of the agrarian culture that once dominated the country. Ben Hodge is the only main character who actually farms for a living, although many of the characters live, or once lived, on farms. The Hodges’ history and downfall as a family is also Batavia’s history and downfall.


*Buffalo. Upstate New York city that although only a half hour distant from Batavia is, in the eyes of its inhabitants, worlds away. For the small-time crook Walter Benson (alias Walter Boyle), it is impossible to make a living in Buffalo, because its inhabitants are more cautious than those of a small town. He relies on the small-town sense of safety to provide him with the opportunities for stealing cash from people’s homes.

While Benson cannot work in Buffalo, Will Hodge, Jr. cannot work in Batavia. He is comforted by the impersonal nature of the city, where it does not matter that he is the grandson of a congressman. Hodge views Batavia as a transitional place. Buffalo is the next evolutionary step beyond Batavia, and Hodge embodies this transition of values from small town to big city.

BibliographyCowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Interprets The Sunlight Dialogues as centered on the human struggle against universal entropy. Includes helpful genre analysis and perceptive analogizing to Sir Thomas Malory, Dante Alighieri, and Homer.Morris, Gregory L. “A Babylonian in Batavia: Mesopotamian Literature and Lore in The Sunlight Dialogues.” In John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. A thorough explanation of the Mesopotamian history, lore, and cultural tradition underlying the four “dialogues” between the Sunlight Man and Chief Clumly; the four dialogues are the controlling structures of The Sunlight Dialogues.Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Astute analysis of The Sunlight Dialogues as “the artistic and intellectual center” of all Gardner’s fiction; Gardner explains his “governing metaphysical system” in The Sunlight Dialogues. Analyzes the complex, multilayered structure of Gardner’s most challenging novel, The Sunlight Dialogues.Payne, Alison. “Clown, Monster, Magician: The Purpose of Lunacy in John Gardner’s Fiction.” In Thor’s Hammer: Essays on John Gardner, edited by Jeff Henderson, et al. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985. A perceptive study of insanity in several Gardner novels. Includes detailed analysis of the symbolic divergence of the emotional idealism of the Sunlight Man and the rational practicality of Chief Clumly in The Sunlight Dialogues.Winther, Per. The Art of John Gardner: Instruction and Exploration. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Discusses Gardner’s literary theory and his fiction and provides insight into the philosophical bases of important characters in The Sunlight Dialogues. Includes helpful discussion of Gardner’s collage technique.
Categories: Places