Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1387
Antony Clarendon grows up in the comfortable, protected, pre-World War I environment of rural Great Britain, believing that Englishmen are generous and caring and love the land with an opulence not found elsewhere. Antony’s early memories of Vine House, the home in which he was born and grew up, a seventeenth century brick and stone dwelling with a coat of arms over the door, are memories of a “harmony so complete that he had breathed it as naturally and unconsciously as pure air.” The people he encounters, from his nanny, Annie, to the local squire, Henry Scrope, affirm the permanence and kindliness of this splendid world.
A very brief affair with his cousin Evelyn convinces him of the paramount importance of the world of the senses. Even a note of dissonance sounded by Stephen Crang, the local radical, who simplistically reduces all life to the problem of subsistence, hardly gets him to change his opinions, although it does encourage him to ponder the extent of society’s responsibility toward those less fortunate.
When Antony is graduated from secondary school, he has no clear idea of what he will do. He tells his father that he is considering becoming an architect, and his father gives him some money to go to Italy to luxuriate in the wonders of the past. On an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea (symbolically called Aeaea after the mythical dwelling place of Circe), Antony meets the love of his life, Katharina. They have an intense two-week affair (“he heard her whispering from far away: ‘Herz, Herz, mein Herz!’”) and make plans to meet again in London, where she will go to live with him, after first returning home to Vienna. Unfortunately, this is the summer of 1914. The Great War intervenes, and she cannot leave her country. The lovers’ meeting never takes place.
Five years later, Antony, having fought on the Western Front as an infantry officer, is haunted by memories of the killing and destruction. He now finds England insipid and views most of its establishment as misguided. Antony wants to be left alone. He continues to be traumatized by the loss of Katharina and asks Henry Scrope, the local squire in his childhood village, to help him obtain a passport to go to Austria and look for her. Scrope’s connections, however, do not pay off.
Antony feels his past slipping away from him. “There was something in having a firm path underfoot, gasless air and no shelling, but otherwise he found nothing [about his old haunts] to rejoice in.” His father pressures him to settle down with a steady job and to marry Margaret, with whom Antony had an affair in the last year of the war. Margaret wants to become Tony’s wife and even tries to entrap him into getting her pregnant. Antony sees through her. He is determined to make no decisions concerning matrimony until he has had a chance to go to Vienna for Katharina. “There was one certainty from which he could not escape, and that was that his relation with Margaret had never been wholly right, never the complete liberation and utter self-forgetting he had experienced with Katha.”
Antony finally manages to get a passport and an Austrian visa and sets off to find his love. He goes to her last known address but finds the house deserted and for sale. He tries to discover her whereabouts from the real estate office, but the agent refers him to the building’s present owner, who also cannot tell him anything. Antony next tries the police, equally without success. He leaves Vienna in despair, returning to Aeaea, where he has spent so many blissful hours. He takes a room in the same hotel, the very room where he and Katharina made love. The trip adds to his melancholy, and on the boat returning to the mainland, he watches the island fade into the distance “as if he were a dead soul ferried over the water of death and gazing back at the last glimpse of the warm land of the living.”
Seven years pass; it is now 1926. Antony is unhappily married to Margaret. He is an executive in a London firm but finds that, despite the material comfort his job provides, he is still miserable. He concludes that “business is bunk. Worse than that. It’s the gradual death of all vital instincts and feelings.” He wants out. At a Board of Directors meeting, he resigns, requesting to liquidate his initial investment in the business. The other directors think he is tired and suggest that he take a few months off to restore his spirits. His wife treats the whole thing as a childish aberration that will pass.
Yet Antony has made up his mind. He heads back to the Continent to rethink his life, going from Chartres to Blois and down toward the Spanish frontier, mostly on foot. He returns to England in time for the General Strike. He participates by doing volunteer work for a London daily, loading the newspapers in cars for distribution to the provinces. England’s greatest example of postwar labor unrest makes Antony realize how utterly helpless he is, how much he is “at the mercy of the social machine.”
The following year is his year of decision. He can no longer relate to his friends or to his wife, whose main concern is to maintain the upper-middle-class standard of living to which she has become accustomed. Following a depressing reunion with his first love, Evelyn, Antony realizes that “everybody he had known and loved in pre-war years was either dead, or estranged from him, or had somehow drifted out of his life.” He again seeks solace in travel, going this time to Tunis, then Sicily, and on to Rome, where by chance he meets Filomena, the daughter of the owners of the hotel on Aeaea at which he once stayed.
Filomena tells him that Katharina is now at her parents’ hotel, although she is due to leave the day after tomorrow. Antony immediately finds a cab, checks out of his hotel, and heads for the railway station to catch the next train for Naples. When it leaves without him, he hires a taxi to get him there. He takes the night boat to Aeaea and arrives at his final destination the following afternoon.
The elderly hotel owners treat him as a long-lost relative. They say that Signorina Katharina is out taking a walk. Antony finds her sitting in the hidden place under a rocky ledge where they first fell in love. Katharina seems delighted to see him, but Antony notices a mysterious fear in her eyes. On the morrow, he discovers the reason.
She tells him that during the war her father was falsely accused of helping Russia and was thrown in prison, where he died. She herself was in jail under surveillance. Her brother, who was in the army, found the disgrace unbearable and committed suicide. The family lost its money; she had to sell the house. After the war, she was unable to get permission to come to England and could not find work. To avoid starvation she turned to prostitution. She finally found a job as a cleaning lady in a shop.
Antony’s love for her, however, has not changed. He says that he was also dishonored by the war and begs her to forget past sorrows and regrets; they should now “sow love and happiness where they planted destruction and misery.” He plans their future. He will divorce Margaret; Katharina will leave Vienna and come to live with him for the rest of his life, possibly in some small house in the south of France. Once a year they will return to Aeaea. Katharine then makes another confession: During the three months she was a prostitute, she had herself sterilized. Antony is unconcerned. He claims that he would have been a rotten father anyway.
Antony then tells her that they should live for the moment and not look too far into the future. He says that they should guard their love from the rest of the world and hope that the world of men will “pardon us the happiness we have made for ourselves, as we pardon them the misery they have laid upon us.”
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