How does thought develop in Larkin's "Dockery and Son"?

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The development of the thought in the poem "Dockery and Son" leads from an event at the narrator's former college to the declaration of an extremely cynical and negative outlook on life. Finding out that his former classmate Dockery has a son that now attends the college causes the narrator to reflect upon his own loneliness and despair during the train ride home.

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In the poem "Dockery and Son" by Philip Larkin, the disillusioned narrator compares his life with that of a former classmate. The first stanza sets up the situation. The narrator has returned to the campus where he attended college, possibly to attend a funeral, as he is a "death-suited" visitor. The Dean remarks that Dockery's son now attends the college, and this stirs memories of the narrator's college days.

The second stanza begins with the word locked, signifying that the narrator's college days are gone forever. He takes a train for home, and as he travels, he muses that since Dockery is younger, he must have been only nineteen or twenty when he decided to have his son.

In the third stanza, the narrator becomes distracted by the realities of his journey, including the "fumes" of Sheffield, "an awful pie" he eats, and the confusing "joining and parting lines" of the train. Here, readers sense the possible dissatisfaction of an unfulfilled life.

In the fourth stanza, we receive more background about the narrator. It seems natural to him to be all alone, "to have no son, no wife, no house or land." At the same time, he is shocked and numbed to realize "how much had gone out of life." He seems to envy Dockery as he considers that his classmate decided what he wanted and went for it.

By the end of the fourth stanza, though, and into the fifth, the narrator seems to try to justify his choices. He considers that to Dockery, having children is adding to or increasing his life. However, to the narrator, having children means "dilution," or a lessening of life's quality. He wonders where the "innate assumptions" that define choices come from and decides that they derive from "style" or "habit," and these tendencies eventually harden so that our paths become set.

The sixth stanza brings out the narrator's cynicism and despair. In the final count, Dockery has a son, but the narrator does not. Possibly as a result of the narrator's extreme loneliness, his philosophy and outlook on life is intensely negative. He claims that life involves "first boredom, then fear." "Whether or not we use" life well, it goes. In other words, however we live our lives, the ultimate end is only death.

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