Themes in A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME

 

I.  Social and political themes

 

            A. Dance as a picture of its times

 

               Powell has captured a whole era of British social history, surveying social occasions of all kinds, recording slang, fashions of the moment, and many political and social events which were contemporary topics of discussion.

 

            B. Upper class decline

 

               The overall view of many commentators is that Dance reveals a definite decline in the upper class. This decline is revealed, for example, by instances of upper class sympathy with communism and radical ideas (which by their nature are inimical to upper-class interests):

 

—Uncle Giles as "a bit of a radical"

—Sillery leads left-wing causes

—Quiggin ditto

 

And by upper class acceptance of individuals without traditional upper class political ideas or sympathies:

 

—Quiggin, Widmerpool, Thomsitt

 

            C. Family Values

 

               The narrator's own lifestyle and conservative ideas are quietly allowed to appear superior to some of the many alternative lifestyles depicted. For example, the treatment of radicals in the novels is somewhat more farcical than the treatment of other characters, i.e., communism and fellow-traveling are made objects of fun, more so than conservatism.

 

—Compare the treatment of Quiggin, Gypsy, and Guggenbuehl with that of George Tolland and General Conyers.

—Powell has left largely untreated the branch of conservative Britains who were enthusiastic about Fascism.

 

 

II.  Individuals and relationships

 

            A. Toleration of others

 

            Toleration is urged on Nick by several characters:

 

—QU/ LeBas' advice to Nick (p. 224)

—BM/ Gypsy's advice at Deacon's party (p. 249)

—AW/ Mrs. Erdleigh's advice to Nick (p. 15)

 

               Although characters are presented with only a few details, as might be the case if one were being introduced to them at a party, and none are fully rendered (even the narrator), nonetheless, the characters in Dance are individuals, often eccentric, as well as unique. The impression is given that all people are of equal interest.

 

            A wide variety of relationships, in and out of marriage, are depicted sympathetically and with genuine interest.

 

            In particular, homosexuality and sexual liberation are treated tolerantly:

 

—QU/ Akworth affair (p. 13)

—QU/ Oscar Wilde reference (p. 41, 43)

—QU/ Sillery as Tiresias---essentially sexless (p. 208, 214)

—QU/ Gwen McReith---bisexual? (p. 81)

 

               The narrator makes the point didactically: "All people driven alike by the same furies, are seen up close to be equally extraordinary"

 

            B. Impossibility of knowing the feelings and thoughts of others

 

            Universal narcissism prevents anyone really knowing another person.

 

               The thoughts of characters other than the narrator are never revealed, only speculation (clearly labeled as such) as to these thoughts by the narrator.

 

            Other people's actions often are misunderstood, unreadable, and/or ambiguous:

 

—QU/ LeBas seems simultaneously "angry and dispairing" (p. 28)

—QU/ Cobberton's rescue of LeBas 'happy or unhappy'? (p. 50)

—QU/ Nick's inability to understand Gwen McReith (p. 81++)

—QU/ The Scandinavians differing attitudes towards Widmerpool before and after he arranges their reconciliation (p. 158)

—BM/ Gypsy clings to Nick "whether as an affectionate gesture, a means of encouraging sympathy or merely to maintain her balance" is uncertain.

—AW/ The reason for Le Bas' attack are many. Exactly what caused it can't be known. (p. 196)

—CCR/ Moreland's reasons for marrying are unknowable.

—CCR/ The waitress at Casanova's Chinese Restaurant looks "embarrassed or cunning" (p. 37).

 

            Even one's own motives may be unreadable:

 

— BM/ Jenkins himself is unsure just why he seeks out Jean while visiting at Stourwater. (p. 213)

 

            The true nature of someone else's marriage is particularly unknowable.

 

            C. What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you think happens to you

 

               This is one interpretation of General Conyer's strictures on the preservation of one's 'personal myth' (BDFR p. 147). It means that what is important is keeping one's personal view of life in sync with 'real' life.

 

            Some qualities that form one's personal myth are:

 

            living by will vs. living by the imagination

            seeing life as drama vs. seeing life as comedy

            thinking vs. feeling

            extroversion vs. introversion

            judging (i.e. reaching closure) vs. process (going with the flow)

 

               In each case, Widmerpool is an example of the first modality; Nick of the second. The last three are scales of the Myers-Briggs personality test, which is an elaboration of Jung's theory of personality. In Myers-Briggs terms, Widmerpool is an ENTJ; Nick, almost diametrically opposite, is an INFP.

 

            Characters who experience particularly severe difficulties with their 'personal myth' include: Widmerpool, Erridge, Roland Gwatkin., and X. Trapnel.

 

            Tragedy can result when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that life does not fit one's 'personal myth'.

 

           D. People don't change, we just get used to them

 

               Characters in Dance may on occasion lead dynamic lives, but are largely static in the basic constitution of their personalities. Nonetheless, Nick and the reader respond to them over the course of the novels differently at different times. Many characters appear to mellow but arguably they do not change, it is only the narrator's view of them that shifts.

 

—QU/ The description of Templer (p. 20) summarizes the treatment of almost every character:  "He had a thin face and light blue eyes that gave out a perpetual and quite mechanical sparkle: at first engaging: then irritating: and finally a normal and inevitable aspect of his features that one no longer noticed."

—QU/ narrator's changed attitude toward LeBas (p. 28).

—AW/ Templer's changed attitude toward Widmerpool (p. 46).

—LM-TK/ Audrey Maclintick, without changing her nagging behavior one bit, becomes a more sympathetic character the longer she lives with Moreland and one sees how much she really cares for him.

—QU-HSH/ The most complex example is the evolution of Nick's attitude toward Widmerpool. Widmerpool, despite massive changes in circumstances, stays pretty much the same. Nick's view of him, however, changes: from ridicule: to interest and sympathy: to irritation, amazement, and respect (at his success): to familiarity and renewed dislike (during the war): to indifference to his circumstances (at the end of the series), but continued interest in him as a specimen of human life.

 

               As further examples, consider any of these characters: Quiggin, Mona, Eleanor, Frederica, Craggs, Gypsy, Dicky Umfraville, Bithel. Each seems to change over the course of Dance, often mellowing in some sense. In each case, however, does the character actually change? Or, is it simply that the narrator (or the reader's) attitude toward the character changes: that one becomes accustomed to them?

 

            This theme blends in with the theme of tolerance. Time facilitates tolerance.

 

               Counter-examples. It can be argued that some characters actually do change. (Stringham, perhaps) But even so, note how much of the character's underlying personality is still fixed. (In Stringham's case, although he loses his manic side, he is still totally self-absorbed.)

 

 

 III. Humor

 

            A.  Sources of humor in Dance

 

            Plot: how accidents alter plans; life can be capricious:

 

—QU/ LeBas' arrest and Widmerpool's reaction (p.47).

—QU/ Stripling's frustrated attempt to plant a po on Sunny (p. 98).

 

               Social life: the ordinary mishaps of social interaction, i.e., misunderstandings, conversations at cross-purposes, combinations of incompatible social types:

 

—QU/ Stringham and Widmerpool (p. 48).

—QU/ Stripling and Farebrother (p. 98).

—QU/ "I might not have been there" (p. 99).

—BM/ The unusual combination of characters at Milly Andriadis' party

—BM/ Specifically the interactions of Widmerpool, Gypsy, Mr. Deacon and Stringham.

—AW/ The conversation of Quiggin, Mona, Stripling and Mrs. Erdleigh at the Templer's (pp. 89-98).

 

               Contrast between narration and dialog: The narrator's viewpoint is analytical; his tone cool and detached; his language formal and at times complex and convoluted. In contrast, dialog is lively and naturalistic (meaning that it could plausibly be the transcription of the spoken words of actual persons). This contrast is consistently humorous and reinforces several overall themes: the presence of humor at every level of human interaction, and the inability of life to live up to our expectations of it.

 

               Outlandish yet apt similes: The narrator constantly gives surprising yet telling interpretations of the expressions and actions of other characters. These are consistently humorous.

 

—QU/ Buster sneers at his cigarette-holder 'as if this object were not nearly valuable enough to presume to belong to him.' (p. 55)

—BM/ Widmerpool stares at Gypsy 'regarding her much as a doctor, suspecting a malignant growth might examine a diseased organism under the microscope.' (p. 89)

—AW/ Jenkins addresses Mrs. Erdleigh 'in the way that a witness, cross-questioned by counsel, replies to the judge.' (pp. 8-9)

 

            B. Comparison with Jane Austen

 

               The importance of humor in everyday life is fundamental to the philosophy of life of Miss Elizabeth Bennett (heroine of Pride and Prejudice) and, presumably, fundamental to Austen's philosophy. This is an important theme of Dance also.

 

               Misunderstanding is the basis for much of Austen's humor (e.g., Elizabeth and Darcy's ill-conceived first impressions in Pride and Prejudice; Emma Woodhouse's long series of misreadings of people in Emma.). This is also characteristic of Dance, but treated much less broadly.

 

               Eccentricity of individual characters is a systematic source of humor in both Austen and Powell.

 

               The humor of both Powell and Austen is, for the most part, tolerant, not cruel (possibly excepting the treatment of Widmerpool).

 

           C. Comparison with George Meredith

 

               In "An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit", Meredith distinguishes satire, irony and humor:

 

If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.

 

If instead of falling foul of the ridiculous person with a satiric rod, to make him writhe and shriek aloud, you prefer to sting him under a semi-caress, by which he shall in his anguish be rendered dubious, whether indeed anything has hurt him, you are an engine of Irony.

 

If you laugh round him, tumble him, roll him about, deal him a smack, and drop a tear on him, own his likeness to you, and yours to your neighbor, spare him as little as you shun, pity him as much as you expose, it is a spirit of Humor that is moving you.

 

               Satire, Irony and Humor are all present in Dance, but Humor, as defined by Meredith, is the most important aspect of both Powell's and Meredith's comedy. Note how tolerant this type of comedy is of its object.

 

               In Widmerpool, we have a character in many ways like Sir Willoughby Patterne (central character of Meredith's masterpiece, The Egoist): both are convinced the world revolves around them, both are super sensitive to the opinions of others, both are themselves entirely without a sense of humor.

 

 D. Comedy is close to melancholy.

 

            This aspect of Powell's comedy sets him apart from Austen and Meredith.

 

—BM/ The sugar incident is both uproariously funny and depressing: the reader has the same reaction as the characters in the novel.

—AW/ Widmerpool puts Stringham to bed: a hilarious incident, but also sad (p. 207-208).

—KO/ Duport's revelation of Jean's infidelity: a highly comic scene, but disturbing as well as sad. (p. 175-179).

 

 

IV. Art and Life

 

A. References to works of art in Dance.

 

            Characters are often described using a work of art.

 

—QU/ Stringham = Veronese's Alexander (p. 8)

—QU/ Lebas - Knave of Hearts, Oriental god, figure from a Bayeux tapestry (p. 26)

—QU/ Sunny Farebrother = Col. Newcomb (p. 78)

—QU/ Madame Leroy = Circe (p. 111)

—QU/ Templer's home = "The Enchanted Castle" by Loraine (p. 73)

—QU/ Mark Members = "Boyhood of Raleigh", "The Dying Gladiator" (p. 181)


—QU/ Group comparison:  (p. 73)

           Stringham = Hamlet

           Tuffy = Polonius

           Buster = Claudius

           Mrs. Foxe = Gertrude

 

            Echoes of other prose works in Dance:

 

—QU-HSH/ Remembrance of Things Past is reflected in the overture, the general set-up: the narrator remembers a large part of his whole life, which memory is triggered by a specific experience (hearing of Widmerpool's death).

—QU/ Kipling Stalky and Co. (another novel about 3 friends at school)

—QU, BM/ Michael Arlen's The Green Hat (a novel about London in the roaring 20's which is read by Nick in QU, Nick subsequently lives in Shepard's Market where The Green Hat takes place.

 

             Pastiche:

 

—LM/ Pepys' diary (p. 11-12)

—VB /Byron letter (p. 170-171)

—MP/ Proust passage (p. 119-121)

—BDFR/ Creevy's papers (p. 43)

—BDFR/ Gronow's reminiscences (p. 43-44)

 

               Specific artistic/literary objects are mythologizied and almost function as characters:

 

—QU+/ Stringham's Modigliani. Represents the ineffable value of art. Passes from Stringham to Pamela to Widmerpool to Bithel to Henderson.

—BM+/ Deacon's "Boyhood of Cyrus". First seen at the Walpole-Wilson's, is recalled many times even though it is not present, sometimes merely by hearing the name 'Cyrus'. Comes to symbolize young love.

—BM+/ The tapestries, "The Seven Deadly Sins". In counterpoint to "Boyhood of Cyrus", they represent mature love, at least in some aspects. They are  frequently recalled by the narrator (right up through HSH).

—LM+/ The Sleaford Veronese. Symbolizes the artistic wealth of the upper classes. It is not well taken care of by the Sleaford's and is eventually sold.

—CCR+/ Bernini's statue "Truth Unveiled by Time". Sold to Deacon by Norman and retrieved after his death.

 

             Some places are mythologized:

 

—Stourwater

—Thrubworth

—Stonehurst

—the Ufford

 

             Mythological, occult, and magical elements also appear:

 

—QU/ Madame Leroy introduces Nick to her guests like Circe (p. 111).

—QU/ Peter's house is described as a sea-palace of mystery as painted by Claude Lorrain (p. 73).

—QU/ Sillery is compared with Tiresias (p. 208).

—BM/ Shepherd's Market is an enchanted precinct (p. 153). Likewise, Stourwater (p. 184-5).

—AW/ Dinner with Peter, Mona and Jean is compared with a ritual feast (p. 63).

—CCR/ The bombed-out remains of the Mortimer are described as a "triumphal arch erected laboriously by dwarfs, or the gateway to some unknown, forbidden domain, the lair of sorcerers" (p. 1).

—CCR/ Lady Warminster is compared to Cassandra (p. 73).

 

               The ubiquitous references to other works of art give the impression that all western civilization, particularly literary history and art history, are commenting on the events of Dance. This systematic incorporation of artistic references suggests that Art is relevant to Life.

 

            But, art is useful only to those sympathetic to it, a point made didactically several times.

 

 B. As a work of art, Dance is naturalistic

 

            Dance is intentionally naturalistic or realistic:

 

—The dialog is like recorded speech; characters are individuals, not types.

—Narrative is (mostly) straight forward with respect to the flow of time.

—Real events and characters are incorporated.

—Powell has tried to make the books a record of his times.

 

               But naturalism is as artificial a means of writing as any other style. Apropos of this point, see the remarks of X. Trapnel (in BDFR p. 214-217). These are usually taken as Powell's own views on naturalism.

 

               Although naturalistic in detail (particularly the dialog), the structure of Dance (i.e., its hierarchical organization and elaborate formal symmetry) is very contrived (as, by definition, are all works of art, i.e. art = artifice).

 

 

V.   The Pattern of Life

 

A. Life is patterned

 

               This thesis is supported by the elaborate structure of the novel and the extensive use of formal symmetry. It is also stated, didactically in the title, the overture, and by many references to life as a dance:

 

—Poussin's painting "A Dance to the Music of Time" has this theme.

—QU/ Overture: Classical allusions suggest applicability of AP's ideas to our time and all time.

—QU/ Overture: Last sentence suggests existence of "laws of life".

 

B. The Occult

 

               The apparent success of occultists suggests that they are more in touch with the 'pattern of life' than others:

 

—AW/ Mrs. Erdleigh's predictions

—KO/ Dr. Trelawney' predictions anticipating both world wars.

 Powellian coincidences are evidence of the power of the occult since "coincidence = magic in action" (according to Dr. Trelawney).

 

             Occult success, fortuitous or not, definitely supports the thesis that life is patterned.

 

 C. Jungian Synchronicity

 

 (These observations are based, in part, on "Anthony Powell's Secret Harmonies: Music in a Jungian Key" by Margaret Boe Birns.)

 

                Jung's theory of "synchronicity" (= "meaningful coincidence") is central to the mysterious level of life in Powell's novels that he refers to as the 'music of time'.

 

               Synchronicity is (1) a sympathetic falling together of an inner state of mind and outer events, or (2) certain types of events that cluster together, or sympathetically cross-connect. The second definition applies to many features of Dance.

 

 As examples one may cite the many coincidental meetings in Dance:

 

—BM/ Nick and Widmerpool are invited to dinner at the Walpole-Wilsons. Later that evening they run into Stringham.

—BM/ Stringham, Widmerpool, Prince Theodoric, Sir Magnus, Truscott all present at Milly Andriadis' party reappear when the Walpole-Wilson's party visits Stourwater.

—AW/ Nick runs into Templer and Jean at the Ritz.

—LM/ Widmerpool and Nick coinsidentally meet At Lady Molly's twice: at the beginning and end of the novel.

 Also synchronistic are the cyclic repetitions and symmetrical events in the novels:

—QU-HSH/ Widmerpool's many humiliations: banana incident, sugar pouring, backing over Sir Magnus' urn, etc.

—QU-HSH/ The many parallels between Nick and Widmerpool

            —both sent to La Grenadiere to learn French

            —both fall in love with Barbara Goring

            —both become involved with Gypsy Jones

            —both announce engagements at Lady Molly's

            —both join the Welch regiment and subsequently have parallel military

                       careers

            —etc, etc.

—CCR-SA/ Moreland marries Matilda whose first husband was Carolo who runs away with Audrey Maclintick who later lives with Moreland.

—BM, CCR/ Stringham brings Nick to Mrs. Andriadis' party. Dicky Umfraville (an older version of Stringham) repeats the introduction several years later.

—Many more examples are listed in A Dance Miscellany.

 

            Here is a more elaborate example of simultaneous synchronicity from KO:

 

—KO/ As the Archduke Francis Ferdinand is being murdered in Sarajevo, the furies also visit Nick's family: Albert resigns, Billson breaks down, and Uncle Giles arrives to announce the events that presage W.W.I. The domestic anarchy of the Jenkins household is synchronistic with the anarchy into which the world is being plunged.

—KO/ Later in the novel, the arrival of Widmerpool at Sir Magnus Donners' heralds the advent of W.W.II. Widmerpool is explicitly described as feminine, in other words the furies present themselves 'in drag'. The 'domestic' anarchy on display at Stourwater (Betty Templer's unhappiness, friction between Moreland and Matilda) is synchronistic with the anarchy into which the world is again being plunged.

 

               Powell uses coincidence to introduce a mythical or archetypal dimension to his work. By means of coincidences, which seem to break through ordinary history, Powell gives us a sense that powerful, transpersonal forces are afoot. Time is a canvas on which numinous forces impress a mysterious pattern.

 

               Widmerpool is involved in more synchronistic events than any other character. He often a projects feelings of doom and/or time out of joint.