Ezra Chater is one of the play's greatest fools and one of literature's biggest cuckolds. He is quick-tempered, slow-witted, vain, and married to a woman who cannot stay faithful. He ended up at Sidley Park as the guest of Captain Brice who, in amorous pursuit of the lusty Mrs. Chater, flattered his poetry and paid fifty pounds to have him published. Chater views Brice as his doting patron, and Brice views Chater as a nit-wit.
When Chater hears that Septimus Hodge, the estate's tutor, has been seen in ‘‘carnal embrace’’ with his wife, he quickly challenges Septimus to a duel. He changes his mind, however, when Septimus falsely praises his poetry and offers to write a glowing review in a London periodical. Later he discovers he has been fooled again, and reissues his challenge. He is prepared to meet Septimus behind the Coverly's boathouse at dawn, but is rushed off the property in the middle of the night when his wife is caught with yet another man, the rakish poet, Lord Byron. Sometime later, while accompanying his wife and Captain Brice on a voyage to the Indies, Chater is bitten by a monkey and dies abroad. Hardly pausing a day to mourn, the widowed Mrs. Chater marries Captain Brice.
The progress Thomasina Coverly makes in Arcadia is from precocious to poignant. She begins the play as the nearly fourteen-year-old daughter of Lord and Lady Croom, owners of Sidley Park. Young as she is though, Thomasina knows—and guesses at—truths far beyond her years. While studying her mathematics, she asks her tutor, Septimus Hodge, with mock innocence, "What is carnal embrace?'' She is undeterred when he tells her it is "the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef,’’ and proceeds to relay a story she heard about one of the house guests caught in carnal embrace in the gazebo. Sometimes she is childlike and impish, while at other times her deadly seriousness is disarming.
In many ways, Thomasina is the central character of Arcadia. She searches for truths, in people, in mathematics, and in poetry, and her ideas send the other characters scurrying for answers—or scratching their heads. Her genius is intuitive. She struggles to learn things, such as Latin, by rote, but she can perceive things and draw conclusions that others cannot. For example, she realizes while eating her rice pudding that the jam can be stirred outward and into the pudding,"making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas.’’ But, she notes, you cannot stir backward and bring the jam together again. From this experiment, Thomasina concludes that if every atom in the universe could be momentarily stopped in its place and examined, a brilliant mathematician could write a formula for all the future, just by predicting the motion of matter.
Thomasina spends much of the play trying to prove her theory to Septimus, who simply tries to keep up with his young protegé and continually challenge her with new ideas. It is not until three years later, during the final scene of the play, that Septimus finally begins to understand what his student has stumbled upon. In trying to explain chaos and thermodynamics, Thomasina has produced a theory that suggests the universe is spiraling outward, cooling off, and will someday grow cold and die. By this time, teacher and student have begun to develop a physical relationship. In the play's haunting final moments, they dance and kiss, just hours before Thomasina's seventeenth birthday, when she is destined to die in a fire in her bedroom.
The oldest of the modern Coverly children, Valentine is a postgraduate student at Oxford, studying biology, mathematics, and, recently, chaos theory. Although he is capable of some dry humor (he jokes, for example, that Hannah is his fiance, and he takes his pet turtle "Lightning" out for a ‘‘run’’), Valentine is mainly a serious-minded, analytical individual. He draws his inspiration from the wonders of science, and finds Bernard's pursuit of Lord Byron's...
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