Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although the surface of the story suggests a light social satire about the “bright young things” who constitute the London Mayfair social scene, the imagery pattern and the symbolic motifs which run throughout point to something more universal and serious. The novel is, on the most basic level, a pessimistic depiction of the inevitable movement toward death, made even more depressing by focusing on a group of characters who live within a kind of sterile “death-in-life.” The theme works both on the social level and the metaphysical level. The fact that the events take place just at the beginning of World War II indicates that the social whirl of the 1920’s and 1930’s will be short-lived. The society which has made the partygoing lives of the characters possible will soon be altered forever.

On the metaphysical and symbolic level, the hotel where the events of this brief pause in the lives of the characters take place is a sort of purgatorial waiting station where those who live a death-in-life await the finality of death. The opening of the novel, which describes the fogbound world of the partygoers, who are temporarily halted in their onward pursuit of a utopian world, is similar to the poetic, dreamlike descriptions in the works of Joseph Conrad or Franz Kafka, for the fog becomes a pall over the lives of the partygoers, even though they are oblivious to its symbolic implications.

Casual readers may find it difficult to perceive this dark and pessimistic theme in the novel, for the surface of the work is obviously that of light social comedy. It is the presence of Miss Fellowes, the constant references to death, the ever-present fog, and the imagery pattern of death that—placed in juxtaposition to the triviality of the partygoing lives of the characters—communicate the more pervasive and general theme of the novel. The theme of a sterile life lacking vitality which then leads ultimately to death seems particularly appropriate to this social class. For Green, only love, which depends on the individuality of the lover and the loved, can give life meaning. Although these characters spend much of their time in sexual pursuit and affairs, none of the relationships suggests true individuality and commitment. Therefore, from Green’s point of view, they do not really live at all.