Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The title Nothing is ambiguous, for one can understand it to mean the flighty emptiness of the social values and lives of the primary characters, or one can see it as suggestive of a more philosophical sense of nothingness that permeates the novel. The title suggests that the characters, whether they be members of the elderly social set or the younger, more earnest generation, have no real spiritual values but instead are “hollow men.” Although Green himself has called the book a “frivolous comedy of manners,” he does seem to be attempting something more than simply a light social satire. The problem is that it is very risky for an author to try to communicate the nothingness of modern life by writing a novel that is empty both of theme and of character.

The book can truly be said to be about “nothing,” but that does not mean it is valueless. Green means to focus less on a thematic content than on style, for he is concerned with creating a novel made up almost solely of dialogue; it is only through talk, Green says, that one knows anything about other people. The result is a work of polished technical facility which quite purposely means to signify nothing of importance outside itself. Although it is characteristic of much modern literature, at least since Gustave Flaubert claimed that his great novel Madame Bovary (1857) was about nothing, to focus more on self-referential style than on mimetic content, it seems fair to say that Nothing fails to achieve the kind of highly polished literary reality that Madame Bovary does.

At the time Nothing was written, Green believed not only that the best way to create a sense of life in the novel was through dialogue but also that the dialogue should be nonrepresentational. It is artistic form, not a realistic imitation, that he seeks. Rejecting the convention of the omniscience of the author by insisting that an author cannot know what a character thinks, Green self-consciously creates a novel that is more abstract design than referential realism. There is no real action, no real narrative progression, no sense of anything or anybody going anywhere. Thus, in keeping with the title, everything leads to “nothing.”