Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
This satiric and symbolic novel focuses on a small group of the idle rich in England just before World War II. While on the way to the south of France for an extended party hosted by the wealthy young playboy Max Adey, a group of socialites are stranded at a London hotel because of fog. What happens during this gossipy, flirtatious lull in their partygoing life is mainly summed up by one of the stranded partygoers: “There’s nothing to do.” Given the hollow values of these people, however, the reader soon realizes that they never have anything to do. The novel primarily consists of talk, most of which is talk about nothing. The only center of interest that could be called “action” revolves around the mild “battle” between the coquettish but reluctant Julia and the beautiful and seductive Amabel for the favors of the playboy Max Adey.
In contrast to the triviality of this triangular chase theme, there is the mysterious illness of the elderly Miss Fellowes and her obsessive concern with a dead pigeon she finds, which (although this motif also seems trivial) constitutes the symbolic center of the novel. In fact, the book opens by introducing Miss Fellowes with this puzzling, poetic sentence: “Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.” Miss Fellowes, a relative of one of the stranded partygoers, washes the bird in a ceremonial way, gives it to a young man (after which she feels better), and then reclaims it, and also her illness, as if she were bound to it in the same way that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is bound to his albatross.
The only other continuous action or repeated motif throughout the novel is the frequent reference to a man named Embassy Richard, who has published on the social pages of the newspaper his regrets for not attending an embassy reception to which he was not invited in the first place. While the motif of Embassy Richard reflects the triviality of the partygoers (Richard even actually shows up at the end of the novel to continue on with the entourage), Miss Fellowes’ illness and the ominous dead pigeon stand as a symbolic contrast to this triviality by being symbolic harbingers of death.
Although there is little action in the novel, it is indeed filled with images and foreboding symbols of death and “death-in-life.” The mysterious fog that covers everything, for example, not only stops everyone in his or her tracks but also covers all of London with a sickly pall reminiscent of the yellow fog in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The dead pigeon, with its connotations of an albatrosslike “death-in-life,” is carried by Miss Fellowes into a tunnel significantly marked “Departures.” When she is taken to a room in the hotel because of her mysterious illness, she spends the rest of the novel fighting the “storms of darkness” which roll over her like “tides summoned by the moon,” her primary concern being that she must not be ill in front of the young people.
Another clue to the symbolic nature of the novel is Julia’s concern for the charms she has left behind, a childish attachment typical of her but which suggests some of the sense of totemistic magic that underlies the novel. Julia’s trip to the station is described as if she were a shadowy ghost moving toward a kind of halfway house between life and death. Indeed, the images of death-in-life are the dominant ones in the novel as the characters chatter on, oblivious to the meaninglessness of their lives.
At the conclusion of the novel, nothing has really been concluded. The fog lifts, Miss Fellowes is taken home, the partygoers catch their train, and one assumes that their lives will continue as usual in their aimless search for a way to kill time. Max returns to Amabel, Julia seems content with having played her flirtatious game, and Embassy Richard, the subject of the running joke throughout the novel, appears to accompany the group to France. The careless tone of the characters is summed up by Embassy Richard’s last-line response to Amabel’s question about where he was going: “I can go where I was going afterwards.”
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