Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
The irony of Henry Green’s Concluding is that nothing is ever concluded in it; in fact, critics have called it his most unresolved and inconclusive novel. They have also called it the strangest and most controversial of his books. The story focuses on a future antiutopian world of the welfare state in England. The central figure is old Mr. Rock, once a distinguished scientist, who lives in a small cottage on an estate that used to be his own but which now is the site of a large institution that trains girls to be government workers.
The action of the novel, which takes place in the course of one day at the school, focuses on the efforts of Mabel Edge, one of the principals of the institution, to get Rock’s cottage away from him. In her quest, she goes so far as to drop absurd suggestions about Rock’s possible sexual relationships with the girls at the school. Her ultimate effort, however, centers on a ridiculous proposal of marriage to Rock. A parallel action concerns the disappearance of two of the girls, Merode and Mary, from the school the same day. Although Merode comes back, claiming she was sleepwalking, Mary never reappears. When the novel ends, the reader still does not know what has happened to her—whether she has tragically been drowned or she has happily escaped the confines of the prisonlike institute.
Other areas of interest in the novel are the relationship between Rock’s granddaughter Elizabeth and Sebastian Birt, the economics tutor at the school; Rock’s refusal to accept an award of recognition for his past scientific achievements, for it would mean leaving his cottage to live in an institution; and the underground emotional lives of the girls who are trapped at the institution. While Edge attempts to get the cottage away from Rock, Rock himself discourages the love affair between his granddaughter and Birt, both because of his jealousy and because he fears her marriage would mean the loss of the cottage, to which he holds tenaciously as a legacy of security for her.
The girls at the institute are so depersonalized that all of their names begin with the letter M—Mary, Moira, and Merode. They are not children, but mature young women, cut off from contact with males, denied love and the opportunity to develop any sense of individuality. Their only escape from the regimentation of the institute is their sisterhood, which meets in the cellar of the institute building. When they invite Rock to one of their meetings to find out about his granddaughter’s future wedding, they treat him in a sexually suggestive and seductive way, but Rock manages to escape involvement with them, as he later is able to rebuff the ulterior advances of Edge.
Concluding has a fairly strict structure corresponding to one day—Founder’s Day of the institute. Part 1 follows events from the time Rock arises at dawn until noon. Part 2 deals with the period from teatime until dusk. Part 3 focuses on the time the Founder’s Day dance begins until late night, when Rock goes to bed. Much of the day consists of the trials of Rock as he meets various efforts by others to break down his individualism. The secondary symbol of individuality is the missing Mary. Throughout the novel, the reader is reminded of her by hearing her name called in the woods. Although the reader is never really sure what has happened to her or why she has disappeared, Mary comes to represent the courage to follow one’s convictions to escape the stifling conformity that the institution represents. Although the other girls are obviously discontented with their lots, only Mary follows through in an attempt to escape her fate.
The climax of the novel comes when Edge and Rock meet during the Founder’s Day dance in a mood of reconciliation brought on by Edge’s indulging in tobacco and by Rock’s weariness. In this sympathetic setting, Edge makes her marriage proposal, a proposal which she herself recognizes to be absurd but which she makes as a last-ditch effort to rid herself of what she considers to be the one thorn of individualism in the side of institutionalism. By his refusal, Rock triumphs over Edge and leaves with a scornful laugh, free of her scorn and her pity, still his own man, still free of the taint of institutional depersonalization.
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