Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Explaining Roman artifacts to young Dicey, an older woman says, “as time goes on things bury themselves.” In this comment the two major themes of the novel are contained. Dinah, the adult Dicey, is just as fascinated with burying things as she had been as a child. Her elaborate project for burying the obsessions of her friends, described at the beginning of the novel, is a repetition of the coffer burial undertaken when she was eleven. Yet although Dinah buries things, she always looks toward the time when they will be dug up. “It’s for someone or other to come upon in the far future” she explains, when the personalities of the buriers will long have been lost and forgotten. The impulse to dig up her own childhood coffer, rather than to leave it for future archaeologists, seems to break her own rules, but then, Dinah is not noticeably rational.

When Dinah and her friends come together to unbury the coffer, they then are violating the time scheme which kept them safe. After their deaths, after the end of their civilization, it would hardly have mattered what archaeologists thought about their find. The point of the story is that in her unreason, Dinah is correct. The lives of the friends can never be complete until they unbury their old obsessions, deal with them, and move on. Thus the unburial, painful though it may be, permits a kind of resurrection for all the women. The theme of time and the theme of burial-resurrection are united at the climax of the novel.