Study Guide

The Ice Age

by Margaret Drabble

The Ice Age Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

How does one behave when the age of faith is past and when economic recession undercuts one’s efforts to create an earthly paradise? How does one make responsible choices in an Ice Age in which the innocent and guilty alike suffer catastrophe and where human endeavor too often seems futile?

For Anthony Keating, responsible conduct if such is possible seems to depend not so much on conscious choices as on an instinctive awareness of his kinship with all the vulnerable creatures of the globe. Anthony recognizes this kinship at the opening of the novel, when he identifies with a stricken pheasant floating in his pond. He correctly guesses that the bird has died of a heart attack, the same malady from which he is himself recuperating at his Yorkshire estate.

As Anthony buries the pheasant, he muses on the words of a friend: “These are terrible times we live in.” Thereupon follows a catalog of private and public woes. The friend, Kitty Friedman, has had her foot blown off and her husband killed by an arbitrarily placed Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb. Anthony’s lover, Alison Murray, is languishing in Wallacia, an anti-British, Eastern-bloc nation, where she is vainly trying to help her teenage daughter, Jane, imprisoned for killing two people in a traffic accident. Anthony himself and his partners in the Imperial Delight Company are facing possible bankruptcy, and Len Wincobank, Anthony’s mentor in the property business, is in jail for trying to retrieve his fortunes by fraud. Even beyond Anthony’s circle, “depression lay like fog” and “people blamed other people for all the things that were going wrong” without knowing “whose fault it really was.”

The issue of fault and blame comes up repeatedly in the novel as Anthony and Alison and their acquaintances struggle to assume or deny responsibility for their lives. Kitty Friedman is nearly unique in her refusal to blame anyone for the tragedies of her life, but such saintliness is achieved only at considerable cost. Her defense against the perverse blows of chance is simply not to think about them, to deny the force of evil in the universe, to screen out the “black wastes” of suffering. The price that Kitty must pay for this strategy is the loss of the past, for she “dare[s]” not “think” of her own husband.

No more realistic than Kitty and much less good-natured is Linton Hancox, an anachronistic classics teacher and a failed poet, who blames dull students and unappreciative readers for the blighting of his promise. Similarly, Len Wincobank charges the “planning authorities” at Porcaster with causing his downfall. Tom Callander, an architect in prison with Len for taking bribes, attributes his misfortune to a disturbance in “the law of chance,” an idea he has culled from a confused reading of Arthur Koestler’s The Roots of Coincidence (1972). Maureen Kirby, Len’s self-sufficient paramour, is...

(The entire section is 1199 words.)

The Ice Age Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

After the relative contentment of the ending of The Realms of Gold, The Ice Age is like a cold shower. The later work begins the series of late novels in which Drabble adopts what critics have called a sociological approach in her fiction. These novels are concerned with the economic and social events in England during the years between 1973 and 1990, years in which a depression was followed by a period of recovery in some parts of the economy, fueled by the exploitation of North Sea oil. There is some justice in the critical complaint that Drabble became less interested in her characters than in how she could use the novel to address the current state of British affairs.

The structure of The Ice Age is unusual. As she often does, Drabble dispenses with chapter divisions, but this novel is divided into three parts; the first two move among five major characters and several minor ones. The final section focuses on only one of these characters. At the end, strong religious overtones are introduced, but it is unclear how seriously Drabble intends the religious motif to be taken.

Anthony Keating is at the center of attention and in the final section becomes the only important character. He is one of a group of middle-aged men and women whose lives have been disrupted by financial and social upheavals. Anthony became involved in real estate speculation after finding several other careers boring. For a while, he and his partners were surprisingly successful, but an economic slump has hit them hard. Anthony has had a mild heart attack and is trying to recover, while wondering whether he is about to become bankrupt. His friend Max Friedmann has been killed by a bomb thrown into a London restaurant by the IRA (Irish Republican Army); Max’s wife Kitty lost a foot in the incident and is trying to pretend that nothing bad happened. Anthony’s lover, Alison Murray, is a onetime star actress who left the stage to look after her second daughter, Molly, born with cerebral palsy and somewhat...

(The entire section is 830 words.)