Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1317
Martin Lynch-Gibbon tells this story, he informs the reader, because it is about his loss of “great peace,” “the end of the old innocent world,” and about how he “was plunged into the nightmare” his life has become. An essential part of his peace is his relationship with Georgie Hands, his lover of two years. Even though she had become pregnant with his child and had had an abortion, this did nothing to disrupt his sense of peace and tranquillity, for—because she had dealt with the abortion alone, an illustration, he thinks, of her “toughness, and the stoical nature of her devotion” to him—the ordeal had been “painless” for him. Another essential aspect of his peace is that his affair with her has remained a secret; its “being so utterly private” is part of its “charm,” he informs her. It is appropriate, then, that Martin should begin his retrospective tale by describing himself and Georgie together in her apartment, a few days before Christmas, the two of them having just made love together, and staring into each other’s eyes. It is appropriate because this scene with her—wherein he assures her that he is certain that his wife, Antonia, does not know about their affair, and wherein he assures the reader that “there was no one in the world at whose feet I would . . . have lain in such an attitude of abandonment” as that expressed by Georgie when she prostrates herself at his feet—represents his “very last moment of peace....”
Martin rests, reading, in the wake of his peace later that same afternoon as he awaits Antonia’s return home from a session with her psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson. Anderson has been Martin’s friend for four years and Antonia’s analyst for only a few months. According to Martin, her analysis is “all for fun,” merely something to keep her occupied. When Antonia returns home, however, she brings with her a truth that becomes for Martin a “bad dream”: She informs him that she and Anderson have been lovers for some time and that they have decided to marry. Antonia wants to remain close to Martin, even though divorced from him. Indeed, she and Anderson have decided that they “can’t do without” him. “We shall hold onto you,” Anderson later tells Martin, “we shall look after you.” Also important is what Antonia and Anderson expect of Martin in terms of a reaction to their affair: They expect him to refrain from using “bitter words” and to act “civilized and intelligent....” While the reader may find such expectations unrealistic, they are characteristic of the society portrayed in this novel—a society devoid of passion and conviction, a society wherein sensibilities are cultivated to pass for love. Martin is a product of this society, and with the help of large amounts of whiskey and wine, he is equal to the expectations of his wife and her lover—until Honor Klein arrives in London to visit Anderson, her brother.
There is “something primitive” about Honor, and she “certainly has power in her,” Georgie says to Martin in the novel’s first chapter (Honor was one of Georgie’s professors at Cambridge). When Honor arrives in London, she impresses Martin as being like a triumphant, “powerful captain,” who is quite capable of forcing others to “bend” to her will. What she bends are the carefully arranged lives of Martin, Antonia, Georgie, and Anderson. She discovers Martin and Georgie’s secret affair, for example, and then informs Antonia and Anderson about it; she introduces Georgie to Martin’s older brother, Alexander Lynch-Gibbon (an introduction Martin had deliberately avoided in the past because he feared that Alexander, as he had done several times before, would woo Martin’s lover away from him), and Georgie not only falls in love with him but also accepts his marriage proposal. The upshot of Honor’s apparent intrusion into Martin’s already unbalanced life is his increasing dependence upon alcohol, his face-to-face confrontation with his utter aloneness, and his intense resentment toward her. In fact, his desperation and resentment are so great that he—while very drunk, and having just found Antonia in bed with Anderson—physically assaults Honor in the cellar of her brother’s house, hitting her in the face three times before she can free herself from his grasp. She returns to her home in Cambridge the following day.
Martin’s attack upon Honor, while certainly unjustifiable, represents the single most honest expression of his passion—let alone his capacity for feeling passion—thus far in the story. He had struck Georgie once across the face when he found her in her apartment with Alexander earlier the same day, but that violent action was only a preliminary (albeit necessary) first step out from behind his paralyzing faiade of propriety. The attack upon Honor ironically represents her success as Martin’s teacher, as she herself had told him, several days earlier, that “only lies and evil come from letting people off” for their transgressions. Martin interprets the scene differently, as well he might since he is still subconsciously searching for someone to depend upon now that he has lost Antonia and Georgie: He interprets his violent outburst against Honor as his heretofore unacknowledged love for her. He thus travels to Cambridge, arrives at her house after nightfall, sees a light on upstairs, sneaks into the house, and discovers Honor in bed with her brother. Suddenly, rather than feeling “the glow of a violent love” which filled him on his way to Cambridge in pursuit of Honor, Martin feels “cursed for life” as hc again resorts to alcohol to feed his “desperate desire for oblivion.” Alcohol fails to be the anodyne it once was for him, however, and he gradually emerges from his stupor as equal to the task of confronting the apparently inevitable: himself alone, as well as the necessity for being self-reliant.
Martin discovers his inner strength just in time, not only to accept Antonia back when she returns to him with a changed mind regarding her attachment to Anderson, but also to stand up to the dictatorial psychoanalyst and—as Anderson is attempting to drag Antonia out of Martin’s house—to hit the man and knock him down. For the moment, Antonia and Martin are reunited—until he discovers that Georgie has attempted suicide because Alexander has told her that he never actually intended to marry her but proposed only to hurt the woman whom he truly loves. Alexander’s true love, Martin learns from Antonia, is Antonia (they had become lovers shortly after Martin married her). Surprisingly, Martin is strong and independent enough at this point to accept this revelation, especially since he is certain that he loves Honor—who is now back in London, again residing with her brother, Anderson, and planning to move to America with him. In fact, even before being told about Antonia and Alexander’s affair, Martin has gone to see Honor to propose that they become lovers. When she rejects his proposal, he does what he earlier said he would never do: He prostrates himself at her feet as an act of devotion. Although she sends him away, he secretly goes to the airport on the day of their departure to watch them leave. He is surprised to see that Georgie, passport in hand, is apparently going with them (she had been seeing Anderson for analysis after her suicide attempt). His sudden sense of loss is so great that it precludes his watching them board their plane, so he returns home, feeling himself “a survivor.” Martin is home only a short time before he has an unexpected visitor: Honor has decided to remain behind with him, her affair with her brother over. Georgie alone accompanies Anderson to America, as the two of them have become “very fond of each other.”
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