Themes

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Last Updated on July 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

The Choice Between Relationships and Individuality

The speaker's description of couples dancing while he watches, alone, conveys the idea that the personal choice of whether or not to couple with another person is fundamental to one's life. One is faced with this decision early on. One must decide to follow what appears to be the majority of people toward a life of "dancing"—where one's movements are not entirely one's own, where one cannot make decisions without reference to and concern for one's partner's goals and ideas—or to remain individual, independent but missing out on whatever it is that so many people enjoy when they are part of a couple.

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Questioning the Importance of Sex and Pleasure

The speaker suggests that the only real benefit to life as a couple is sex, though he does not even seem convinced that it is a benefit. He concedes that couples get to have "Sex, yes, but what / Is sex?" As a person who chooses not to engage intimately with another person, his choices obviously preclude sex—or, at least, regular sex with someone he knows well or loves. However, he hardly seems convinced of the value of sex. It does not seem like something that is especially appealing to him, and he would not be willing to give up his individuality for it.

People's Belief in the Rightness of Their Choices

The speaker claims that couples believe they are happier than those who remain single, while those who choose to remain single believe that they are happier than those who are a part of a couple. The speaker believes "this" (that he is happier than the couples), while the couples believe "that" (that they are, in fact, happier than those who remain individual), and "both are satisfied." Both feel secure and convinced that they are correct, having made the happiest choice. However, the speaker adds the caveat that this satisfaction is founded upon the condition that "no one has misjudged" themselves and that no one is lying about how happy they actually feel.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

The central concern of “Reasons for Attendance” is the choice between competing ways of life—a life of human connection and sexuality, and the detached, isolated life of the artist/misanthrope. In this poem (as in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”), the decision-making process itself is dramatized for the reader. In Larkin’s poem, the reader sees what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “dialogic imagination” at work as separate “voices”—the “trumpet’s voice” and the “rough-tongued bell”—struggle to present their competing claims.

After noting how he answers the trumpet call of the dance hall, the detached poet becomes more and more engaged by the movements of the “flushed face” dancers until he can actually “sense” the “smoke and sweat” beyond the glass. Finally seduced by thoughts of the “wonderful feel of girls,” he is forced to ask himself, “Why be out here?” At this moment, the voice of individuality is compelled to counter with “But then, why be in there? Sex, yes, but what/ Is sex?”

Triggered by the mention of sex, Larkin the individualist plunges ahead to proclaim his judgment of the notion that supreme happiness is possible only through sexuality: “Surely, to think the lion’s share/ Of happiness is found by couples—sheer/ Inaccuracy, as far as I’m concerned.” Forced by the break in stanzas after the word “sheer” to wait to hear the poet’s final assessment, the reader can almost feel Larkin struggling to choose the right word to express his disdain. Through the device of enjambment from one stanza to another, Larkin creates the turn of the poem. Poised at this moment of indecision, the reader has been led by the emphatic words “Surely” and “sheer” to expect an outburst of contempt for the notion that social contact is superior to individual happiness. Instead, either under the influence of his competing voice or in fear of the passionate crescendo of emotions in the preceding lines, the poet retreats to understatement—calling the notion “inaccurate”—and assumes the detached, pretentious tone that dominates almost until the poem’s end.

In fact, from this turn in the poem until the final line, Larkin is able to create what Bakhtin calls a “centripetal force”: The two voices seem to reach a resolution in which each accepts the beliefs of the other and both are “satisfied” with their own choices. Larkin even seems to underscore this controlled harmony by resorting in the final stanza to exact rhyme rather than slant rhyme for the first time in the poem.

The final line of the poem (“If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.”), however, destroys the poem’s logical and formal harmony, setting off again what Bakhtin would call the poem’s “centrifugal force.” Larkin’s honesty (the same unflinching clear-sightedness that pervades many of the poems in The Less Deceived, the monograph in which “Reasons for Attendance” appears) raises the possibility that either the dancers or the poet have been self-deluded in their happiness. Which of the two parties is “the less deceived”? Larkin’s honesty at the poem’s end might lead the reader to conclude that the poet is less deluded than the solemn, mauling dancers. Yet the use of the masculine “himself” (though ostensibly a generic pronoun) and the dramatization of the poet’s self-deception in the course of the poem lead the reader to speculate that the poet, though less deceived than at the poem’s beginning, is still deceived himself.

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Characters