Quartet in Autumn Essay - Critical Essays

Barbara Pym


“Far/ From the exchange of love . . . / Unreachable in a room,” a passage from Philip Larkin’s poem “Ambulances,” was certainly on Barbara Pym’s mind—she quotes part of it—as she wrote her bleak story of unfulfilled, isolated lives. Marcia, Letty, Norman, and Edwin have lost the ability to form close relationships with others; even to attempt it would threaten the self-protective walls they have built little by little over the years. So many years of refusing to reach out beyond themselves make each thought or act that reinforces their isolation easily justifiable. Edwin does not visit Marcia even though he does not live far away and occasionally passes the road where she lives. He assumes that someone from the church will be keeping an eye on her, and anyway she likes to keep to herself. He is vaguely troubled by the parable of the Good Samaritan, but he does not pursue the matter. Marcia easily justifies not wanting to invite Letty to live with her (two women could not possibly share the same kitchen, among other reasons); Norman and Edwin justify not giving the women a retirement present because they do not expect one and “it would only embarrass them.” Even when a helping hand is offered, the narrator quietly undercuts the character’s motive, as when Edwin takes it on himself to find Letty new accommodations, but perhaps only, the narrator suggests, because “he see[s] himself as a person wanting to help ladies.”

What these characters seem to lack most is a sense of achievement. Their work, as they well know, lacks any purpose at all. In fact, it is so unimportant that the reader is never told what it is. When the women retire, they are not replaced, and the company plans to phase out the department completely when the men retire. This contributes to the feelings...

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