A Dance to the Music of Time Summary
by Anthony Powell

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A Dance to the Music of Time Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are usually grouped into four “movements” of three novels each. The first novel of the first movement, A Question of Upbringing, covers its narrator’s years at school and at the university (Eton and Oxford, in the early 1920’s, although Powell gives them no name). The action shifts to the social life of London in the late 1920’s in A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World concludes the movement with a school reunion in the early 1930’s. Each movement and novel are, in their own way, independent fragments of the whole sequence, but as the sequence develops, the novels certainly become less meaningful for readers unfamiliar with characters and events arising in earlier volumes.

Typically, the novels that constitute A Dance to the Music of Time consist of about four fifty-page episodes interspersed and sandwiched by page-long reflective passages, such as the one that opens the sequence. These episodes, with their attendant reflections, generally revolve around a small group of characters and a single action, usually a party or an outing. The last novel of each three-novel movement usually serves as a kind of climax for the sequence to that point. The school reunion and its immediate consequences, which conclude The Acceptance World, draw to a thematic close the various matters of upbringing and initiation into adult society that have concerned all three novels of the first movement. The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel in the sequence and the final novel of the second movement, cuts across the whole period of the first half of the sequence. It begins with a flashback to Nicholas Jenkins’s childhood at the outbreak of World War I and ends with England’s entrance into World War II, chronologically bracketing the entire first half of the sequence.

The first three novels cover Jenkins’s life from age fourteen to about twenty-five, but readers learn less about him than about his school friends, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer, and Kenneth Widmerpool. Stringham and Templer, like the narrator, are sons of upper-or upper-middle-class families, although only Stringham has any links to the actual “aristocracy.” Widmerpool, the son of a Nottinghamshire liquid fertilizer dealer, is an outsider who is viewed as a humorless misfit at school, always training to run races in which he invariably loses. Throughout the sequence, Widmerpool cuts a ridiculous figure, but by the end of the first movement, Jenkins sees that others take the stolid, self-important, and strong-willed misfit seriously. During the intervals of time between Jenkins’s meetings with him after leaving school, Widmerpool becomes increasingly accepted in powerful business and political circles. Because their relationship is friendly but not intimate, their meetings are infrequent and usually coincidental. Yet these “Widmerpool scenes” are not only among the most comic in the sequence, but they also advance Powell’s social theme. With each encounter, Jenkins grows less and less inclined to trust his snobbish public school view of society, which led to his misreading not only Widmerpool but also, to a lesser degree, Templer and Stringham, for whom success in the world seemed assured when Jenkins knew them at school. Templer, whose main interests are business and women, fails with both. The charming and even better-connected Stringham seems destined for a brilliant career in anything that attracts him, but his interests are unfocused, and his talents are dissipated by alcohol, family troubles, and aimless distractions. He fails at everything, but with grace, good humor, and modest detachment. Widmerpool’s successes are accompanied by none of these endearing qualities.

By the end of the first movement, Powell’s narrator has lost most of his early illusions about upbringing, character, and success in a world that he discovers is changing more rapidly than establishment attitudes are able to comprehend, let alone...

(The entire section is 2,757 words.)