Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

There is much subtle irony in Eva’s story, and some not so subtle: Jeremy, whose care has guided Eva into adulthood, is the instrument of her death, and the gun he kills her with belongs to Eric and Iseult Arble. Constantine contributes to the accident by refusing to lock up the gun when Iseult asks him to do so. The same people who have always controlled Eva’s life play a role in her death; her escape from their dominance is ineffectual.

The circular structure of the novel is enforced in other ways. The title of the last chapter of the book is the same as the first sentence of part 1: “This is where we were to have spent the honeymoon.” In the beginning, Eva’s words refer to the history of her fictitious engagement; using them again in the last chapter suggests that Eva’s desire for romance is doomed from the start, that to someone such as Eva, always the victim of other people’s confused relationships, a healthy marriage is impossible. Eva, as the product of other people’s mistakes, serves as a constant reminder of those mistakes: In her, Constantine sees his infidelity, Iseult confronts her abandoned ideals, Eric recognizes his eroded sense of manhood. These errors begin to be rectified as Eva nears her death. Iseult and Eric resume their marriage, and Constantine admits that he loves Eva despite his pretense that she is a burden. These tangential characters grow by experiencing corruption and admitting that they have failed; Eva grows in ways that preserve her innocence.

Another important theme in the novel is the connection between language and definition of self. Eva mistrusts spoken language, assuming that it distorts feeling rather than clarifying it. Her intellectual vocabulary is small, despite Iseult’s attempts to stimulate in her the life of the mind. Henry’s references to literature escape her, and Jeremy stubbornly refuses to learn sign language, preferring instead subtler forms of communication with Eva. Without the aid of language, Eva’s maturation process is slow; the novel suggests that language accelerates and accommodates human development.