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L P Hartley is best known for his novel The Go-Between which became a movie and for The Eustace and Hilda Trilogy. "A High Dive" is included in The Complete Short Stories of L P Hartley and it contains a message for the reader, as do most of Hartley's works.
The circus manager and his wife have a crisis. Their well-loved circus is suffering as there are no new acts and the old ones are stale and not appropriate for "an up-to-date audience." The manager is reluctant to introduce any "dangerous" acts as they had previously resulted in tragedy and then the people came "in shoals" because they wanted to see where someone had been killed. While the manager and his wife are discussing this problem, a man comes looking for a job. He claims that he can "dive sixty feet into a tank eight feet long by four feet wide by four feet deep" which interests the manager as it sounds quite unique and the manager's outlook improves immediately. However, never satisfied, the manager wonders if the man can do it if "there is petrol burning on the water." This immediately gives the reader a sense that the manager is taking a risk far beyond what is necessary. Instead of waiting for the man to do his act, despite his earlier claims that something "dangerous" is not an option, he tries to increase the intensity of the act. The manager also absolves himself of any responsibility by suggesting that "it's his funeral," which reveals the manager's desperation but saddens the reader because he has not even given the real act a chance.
As time passes and everything is prepared, the manager realizes that adding petrol is a bad idea. Therefore, they let the man do his act without any extras and they are very impressed and immediately want to hire him. When he turns them down, despite their very generous offer, they wonder in disbelief, only to discover that the man has never performed the act before and really doesn't like it.
The story teaches the reader to consider risk carefully, which fortunately the manager does. He is in the business of taking risks but some risks are a step too far. The story teaches the reader that it is acceptable to change his or her mind and that putting others at risk is not acceptable. From the young man's perspective, it reveals that satisfaction is far more important than money. It also reveals that taking risks can sometimes resolve issues and provide answers. Ultimately the reader recognizes that risk is a subjective issue and should be considered each time a risk needs to be taken. Nothing should be taken lightly but the fact that without risk there can be no progress rings true.
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