Passing On Analysis
by Penelope Lively

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Passing On Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Passign On begins with a death, but the title is more than a euphemistic reference to that event. With its suggestions of movement and change, Passing On proves to be a careful examination of what human beings inherit from one another and what they leave behind as they pass through formative relationships. By focusing on the emotional and psychological damage that Dorothy Glover has done to her children, Penelope Lively explores the consequences of one generation’s intangible legacy to another. There is also the literal passing on of one’s goods: In this case, Dorothy bequeaths her house to her great-nephew, though she grants her children a lifetime tenency, and her wooded property, the Britches, to Helen and Edward.

The novel unfolds as a straightforward, chronological narration interspersed with apposite memories of Helen and Edward. This method of storytelling emphasizes the passage of thirty years, but ironically, it is time in which little or no change has occurred. Much more happens in the real time the book covers, the few months after Dorothy’s death. It is almost as if Helen and Edward have been caught in a time-warp and have an enormous amount of catching up to do. This is exemplified by a trip they take to London, their first trip in years. They recognize few buildings and landmarks, and have no idea how long it takes to cross London by Tube. A restaurant they search for is gone, replaced by an expensive wine bar. They meet stockbrokers in an enormous glass office building that had not existed on their last visit. Their disorientation makes them dependent and childlike, as if their adulthood has been stripped away.

Perhaps the most ingenious device of the novel is that the character who has the most influence dies before the story begins. Dorothy Glover speaks to the reader only through her children’s memories, and despite her abuse of them, they are trustworthy conveyers of Dorothy’s character. Helen and Edward, in fact, seem to be recognizing for the first time how awful their mother was. Oppressed by her for years, they take for granted her superiority and their inferiority. Despite their diffidence, they are portrayed sympathetically, and the slow emergence of their personalities from their mother’s shadow is a matter of celebration.

Dorothy’s sole motivation in life seems to be to control others. Helen and Edward can remember their father only in vague, shadowy ways. When Helen finds some old family photographs, she sees none of her father, and she realizes that his impact on her life has been equally inconsequential. Dorothy has dominated not only the home but also the surrounding village. She is perceived by her neighbors as loud and un-likable, someone with vehement opinions but little...

(The entire section is 685 words.)