Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148
Search for Self
In act 2, Edward seeks psychiatric help because, as he explains, "I have ceased to believe in my own personality " Sir Henry answers this with the observation that it is a "very common malady. Very prevalent indeed." The entire play traces the course of how three people—Edward, Lavinia, and Celia—find that the personalities that they had believed in fall short of the world's requirements. It is significant that the first time Edward opens up to anyone and talks about the reality of his marriage is when he is left alone with a character whom he does not know, named "Unidentified Guest" by the playwright. To the stranger, Edward admits his uncertainty about a life without Lavinia, and when the stranger offers to bring her back, he accepts, despite the fact that he had previously felt she was forcing him into a life of falsehood. When she does come back, Edward realizes almost immediately that it is a mistake. He is not comfortable with himself, either with or without her, and so he believes that the best place for him would be isolated in a sanatorium where he would not have to put on any outward appearance at all.
Lavinia's search for self, as Sir Henry explains it, started when she realized that her lover, Peter, was not only in love with another woman, but that the other woman was Celia, the woman with whom Edward was having an affair. Having lost two men to the same woman raises the question of her own desirability. She wants to be loved, and the fact that no one loves her makes her question whether this is a practical goal at all. To deal with this newfound knowledge, Sir Henry suggests that she throw herself back into the life that she had been leading, calculating that she could at least be comfortable with her husband because he would not stray from her, having proven that he is incapable of love.
After her affair ends, Celia comes to a pair of frightening conclusions about herself, that she is alone and that she is a product of sin. Sir Henry does not try to convince her that she is wrong in these conclusions, but instead treats them as her awakening to the truth about the human condition. While he suggested that Edward and Lavinia deal with their circumstances by staying together, which would at least give them company in their loneliness and keep them out of trouble, he shows more faith in Celia by presenting her with a choice. Rather than taking the tame, secure route, like them, she chooses to go on a quest to find herself. She ends up less alone when she learns to respect the disease-ridden natives of Kinkanja, and she fights her inherent sinful condition by giving her life for them with no hope of reward.
Duty and Responsibility
Before their separation at the start of this play, Edward and Lavinia look upon each other as a burden or responsibility. Edward, a lawyer, sees himself as being the practical one of the pair, but when he goes to see Harcourt-Reilly he does so because, as he puts it, "I can no longer act for myself. Coming to see you—that's the last decision I was capable of making." He wants to be locked away in a sanatorium where he will not be responsible for the decisions of his life. Lavinia, too, expects to be sent to a sanatorium when she has troubles. Instead, Harcourt-Reilly tells them to stay together, to be responsible for each other. They complement each other in social matters: as Lavinia points out, Edward has a practical mind for tasks like filling out an income tax form, but she herself is "practical in the things that really matter.'' Their brief separation is a result of their hope for love and their desire to be free of responsibility. As long as they treat each other as a duty, instead of as lovers, their relationship works out just fine. The party that they are preparing for at the end of the play is not something that they look forward to, but it is something that they feel that they must do because of their social position, and this sort of responsibility brings Edward and Lavinia together.
Celia's journey begins when she is cut loose of her relationship with Edward and is not allowed to be bound to him. She sees that their relationship was "a dream'' and feels that she needs something more substantial. It ends in the jungle of Kinkanja, poised between the monkeys, who have no sense of responsibility and are merely destructive, and the English government, which is suppressing the local people by trying to force them into Christianity. The locals put their fellow humans at risk by following their duty to take care of the monkeys, while the Christians also endanger human lives in the name of their religious duties. It is only Celia, who has no responsibility to the plague-ridden patients in the hospital other than her innate sense of humanity, who stays with them, losing her life in the process.
Love and Passion
True, romantic love has hardly anything to do with the events depicted in The Cocktail Party. The affairs that take place seem to the participants to be caused by love until they are over and can be examined more closely, and then they are seen as illusions. The first broken relationship that the audience is informed of is the marriage of Edward and Lavinia; from the questions of the other characters, it is obvious that she is not really at an aunt's house, but that she has left him. He wants her back, but as he explains to the Unidentified Guest, "Why speak of love? We were used to each other " His mixed emotions about Lavinia's disappearance become even more confusing when it is revealed that he and Celia have been involved in an affair, but having decided that he wants Lavinia back, he is able to end the affair quickly. As Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly puts it later, he is a man incapable of loving.
When he breaks the news that he has asked Lavinia to come back, Celia sees Edward with newly-opened eyes, and he appears to her as a hollow shell of a man. The love that she thought that she had for him was an illusion. Her passion was transient, superficial.
Celia is completely uninterested in Peter's desire for her. Peter expresses his excitement in grand, sweeping terms' "And I was so happy when we were together—so contented, so ... at peace. I can't express it, I had never imagined such quiet happiness ''
Still, in spite of the passion he claims to feel, he does not make any move to approach Celia romantically until years later, after she is dead.