THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL is a novel that suffers from the author's inability to decide whether he wished to write a comedy that had tragic overtones or a tragedy with comic undertones. The result is neither a literary fish nor a polemical fowl. George Meredith was just starting a long career when he wrote this book, in which he later made numerous changes, omitting many unneeded characters, the result of which was to create a slightly more coherent work.
Part of the problem with the reader's blending into the book was the scattershot sprinkling of religious allegory that Meredith uses to emphasize his theme that man was born innocent but corrupted by scheming women. Meredith mentions more than a few times the word "apple" in an Edenic context, a symbolism which tends to flatten his characters into updated biblical figures. In real life George Meredith was hurt by an uncaring father who probably was the model for Sir Austen Feverel, who decided to recreate the biblical confrontation between Adam, Eve, and the snake. Only this time Sir Austen would eliminate the snake and give Adam advance knowledge of Eve's duplicity. Adam is Sir Austen's son, Richard, who from birth is taught to accept the teachings of a new system which emphasizes the growth of positive personal attributes on one hand and a watchful caution of womanly wiles on the other. Richard, then, is groomed to be a successful sociological Petri dish in which Richard avoids the apple bite that ensnared Adam. The problem, of course, is that a man is not a dish, and for the entire experiment to succeed in the sense that Richard would grow up as his father wished, then Sir Austen would have to have the same divine foresight that God has. All he has is a wish to prevent his son from suffering as he himself suffered at the hands of an unscrupulous woman, but this desire is not enough to shape Richard's growth into a healthy direction. Predictably, Richard drifts in and out of trouble, sometimes aided by his father's money, and other times by the timely intervention of trusted companions. Later, when Richard falls in love, he is not equipped by nature or training to withstand the womanly wiles of a lady whose hired job is to do just that. Thus Sir Austen's grand design has a cracked flaw that results in tragedy for Richard and his beloved. THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL, in its unwieldy mixture of romance, tragedy, drama, and bible lore run amuck, becomes more of an ordeal for the reader than for Richard.