How does chaos theory emerge as a theme in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Chaos theory is a science and math theory that deals with surprises. It focuses on the nonlinear and the unpredictable. Effectively, the theory deals with things that are impossible to predict and/or control like weather and the stock market. These unpredictable phenomena can be described through fractal mathematics. Edward Lorenz made a very famous example of Chaos theory when he changed a minuscule amount of weather data in a model he was working with. The small change resulted in massive changes down the line that could not have been predicted, and he famously made the connection that the flap of a butterfly's wings could actually alter a massive weather pattern. He called it the Butterfly Effect.

Arcadia could be related to Chaos theory in several ways. A case could be made that the seemingly small and insignificant actions taken by characters in the past had huge impacts on the characters in the present. This answer could encompass various characters and actions throughout the play. If the question is seeking a more direct relationship, then I would focus on the iteration formulated by Thomasina. She can't complete the mathematical repetitions due to the technology she has at hand, but present/future characters do complete it and realize that Thomasina was working toward creating a fractal.

I, Thomasina Coverly, have found a truly wonderful method whereby all the forms of nature must give up their numerical secrets and draw themselves through number alone.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The best way to approach chaos theory as a theme in this work is to consider the way that the play explores the concept of free will vs. determinism, and how chaos theory falls within this exploration. The various characters explores free will through looking at humans and their emotions, taking scientific principles and exploring them to their logical extreme. Thomasina's efforts are basically trying to use the laws of physics to predict the future, which makes us question free will. Yet chaos theory perhaps throws into doubt the use of science to predict the future. Note what Valentine says about chaos thory in the following quote:

The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is... We're better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it'll rain on auntie's garden party three Sundays from now. Because the problem turns out to be different. We can't even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular. Each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediction apart, and the weather is unpredictable in the same way, will always be unpredictable.

Context is all important, and although science is able to yield some concrete results about the future, at the same time it is vitally important to realise the limits of science and how chaos theory plays into that. Just as it is impossible to "predict the next drip from a dripping tap," so humans themselves can be impossible to predict, thanks to emotions and the way that they are shown to govern and rule our lives. Chaos theory therefore is important in this play as it shows the limits of science when trying to understand how we as humans operate.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial