Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565
Nothing, one of Henry Green’s last novels, is an experimental effort to embody his creative theory that the best way to create a sense of life in narrative is by dialogue. In this drawing-room comedy about the generation gap among the so-called Mayfair social set in London following World War II, there is much idle chatter from the characters but very little explanation or probing of motives by the author. The result is a novel of little action, made up of oblique dialogue, somewhat in the Jamesian manner (but without Henry James’s complexity of thought), that provides the reader with only the brittle surfaces of this upper-class social set. As many critics have noted, the four “mature” characters, John Pomfret, Jane Weatherby, Elizabeth Jennings, and Richard Abbot, seem to be essentially the same people on whom Green focused in his early novel Party Going (1939), now grown older, although not very much wiser.
The plot, such as it is, deals with one of the predominant concerns of the Mayfair social set: sexual pairings. John, a forty-five-year-old widower, becomes involved once again with an old lover, Jane. This reunion, primarily engineered by the schemes of Jane, means John’s breakup with his lover, Liz, and Jane’s breakup with her platonic companion, Richard. At the end of the novel, more out of indifference than desire, Richard and Liz become involved after Jane and John become “reinvolved.” In the meantime, John’s daughter Mary has become engaged to Jane’s son Philip, who celebrates his twenty-first birthday in the novel. Much of the action of the work centers on the efforts of Jane to get John back and to break up the engagement of Mary and Philip. Although no specific information is given, much of the dialogue suggests that the reason Jane is trying to break up the relationship is that Mary and Philip may be half brother and sister as a result of the earlier love affair Jane had with John. It is more likely, however, that Jane simply finds a double wedding of the old and the new couple unseemly in her social set.
The basic irony of the story is that instead of the older couple being conservative and stodgy in their dealings with a somewhat wild younger generation, as is the convention in social comedy, in this case the situation is reversed. John and Jane, who were young during the so-called Roaring Twenties, are the frivolous ones, while Mary and Philip, properly sobered by World War II, are much more serious. While the parents still live within a party world, the children hold drab office jobs in government. Thus, the novel ironically focuses on the hedonism of the older generation and the puritanism of the younger one.
Green makes no firm moral judgment on either of these value systems; each has its own merits and its own shortcomings. The older generation is often selfish but compensates for this with its charm. The younger generation is often quite earnest but spoils this by being more than a little dull. Whereas the older generation lacks responsibility, the younger generation lacks elegance. The dialogue primarily reveals and reflects this dichotomy throughout the novel. It is this reversal of expectation which is responsible for the novel’s comic satire on both the idle rich of the late 1930’s and the earnest drones of the late 1940’s.
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