Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In Anthony’s quixotic mission and in Alison’s tortured self-questioning, Drabble raises the crucial, if unresolvable, issues of the novel: How much real choice do human beings have? Where does responsibility begin and end? In her exploration of these issues, Drabble gradually and somewhat tentatively reveals a link between respect for life in all its phases and the willingness to take responsibility for oneself and others. That respect is too often missing in Anthony’s and Alison’s worlds. Indeed, the Ice Age wasteland must be at least partly attributed to the egocentricity of its inhabitants. Terrible accidents do happen, and there is apparently no benign providence to set them right. It is equally clear, however, that too many people have made irresponsible, “anticonservationist” choices. Kitty is maimed not by accident but because someone deliberately planted a bomb, not caring who its victims might be. The property developers have crashed because they have risked too much on schemes of questionable social utility and society, sometimes in the form of recalcitrant city planning boards, is making them pay the price. It is clear also that too many people Jane Murray, Linton Hancox, Tom Callander are so preoccupied with assigning blame to others that they do not learn from their own mistakes. All recognize an atmosphere of petulance and irresponsibility, but few recognize their own contributions to that atmosphere. Anthony and Alison, for all of their inconsistencies, are able to see at least intermittently the interconnectedness of things: “None of our decisions is taken in isolation if decisions we can call them.”

Yet Drabble’s universe is not a moralistic one in which the bad are punished, the good rewarded, and everyone gets what he deserves. Luck, chance, and accident undercut the individual’s sense of purpose and destroy the illusion of control. Resilience may depend upon an acceptance of life’s uncertainties.