Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The title of the book clearly suggests the theme: that everyone craves attention and wants to be noticed and recognized for one’s unique qualities, for approval, acceptance, and love. In itself, this is not a particularly original or imaginative theme, but in Anita Brookner’s hands it is expressed in a fascinating interplay between characters of strikingly different personalities and behaviors.

The Frasers’ craving not only for notice but also for every impulsive gratification is contrasted with Frances’ silent yearning, never expressed to anyone but reiterated in her candidly self-analytical internal commentary. In the first chapter, for example, she admits to admiring handsome men and beautiful women for the power they exercise over others, and she finds herself wanting to attract their notice, wanting to say, “Look at me, look at me.”

Thus, the attention that the Frasers draw to themselves and the attention that Frances is willing to give them while deeply desiring to share it constitutes the element in theme that brings them together. By their noisy, joke-filled hilarity and their greed for pleasure and satisfaction, the Frasers reflect the significance of the theme, the childishness of their natures and behaviors.

Brookner sees the same significance in Frances’ frequently though silently reiterated plea—“Look at me, look at me.” She, however, is the good child, behaving as she has been taught to behave, with restraint and good manners, wanting things to come out right. She even sees herself as childish, with her thin body, her neat appearance, her fearful expression when her mirrored self stares back at her.

The book opens and closes with a clear, precise, and significant statement: “Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, so long as it is remembered, it will indicate the future.” At the beginning of the book, the comment intrigues the reader and leads one to discover the story behind it. At the end, the reader understands the reason for the opening remark; the occasional repetition throughout the book at appropriate and relevant points, as well as at the closing, expresses and reinforces what must have been Brookner’s controlling intent.