Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

As the title of this novel might suggest, there is much in A Severed Head that is symbolic. For Martin, the “things” he and Antonia own together are, after their separation, “sad symbols” for his loss of the warm, secure “bright figured globe” of his existence. For the author and...

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As the title of this novel might suggest, there is much in A Severed Head that is symbolic. For Martin, the “things” he and Antonia own together are, after their separation, “sad symbols” for his loss of the warm, secure “bright figured globe” of his existence. For the author and reader, Martin’s search for a fully conscious and individuated self is best symbolized by fog, which at times prevents him from being certain as to what time of day or night it is and which comes to symbolize the opaque unconscious realm through which Martin spends most of his time wandering. Indeed, it is appropriate that early in the story Martin goes to the train station to meet Honor, a woman who is to become his guide and teacher, and during their drive back over the foggy London streets to Anderson’s home, Martin asks her to help him find his way (the foggy streets in this case take on the symbolic significance of a labyrinth, itself an archetypal symbol of the individuation process). Later in the novel, Martin intimates his half-conscious awareness of what the fog symbolizes in his life when, walking in London during a foggy evening, he tells himself, “I cannot see,” and then he tells the reader that “it was as if some inner blindness were being . . . tormentingly exteriorized.”

The most important symbol in the novel is the “severed head” itself, as it becomes the unacknowledged goal of Martin’s search for self. Honor views herself as “a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use” because they believed that they could make such a head “utter strange prophecies. And who knows,” Honor says to Martin, “but that long acquaintance with a severed head might not lead to strange knowledge.” Initially, however, Martin does not view her as such a “head.” In fact, since before knowing her, he has interacted with women on a strictly physical level, it is not surprising that initially he should view Honor as a “headless sack.” His gradually awakening love for her, a consequence of his inner growth and maturation, changes his heretofore characteristic emphasis upon the physical where women are concerned. The passion he feels for her is “a subjection” of his “whole being” and has “little. . . to do in any simple or comprehensible sense with the flesh.”

Finally, near the novel’s end, Martin has a dream that represents his psychological growth, as well as his new awareness that the most wisely balanced and profoundly meaningful kind of love has less to do with physical attributes than with an androgynous sharing of spirits and minds. In his dream, he sees Honor and her brother (for both of whom Martin has respect and passionate desire), “naked in each other’s arms.” Suddenly, they become so close together as to seem fused, to seem “to have become one person.” In short, what Martin witnesses in this dream is an archetypal image of psychological and spiritual alchemy—the relationship between two individuals, the crucible in which a fusion of gender takes place at the mental level, so that out of the apotheosis arises two androgynous equals. Martin is one half of such a crucible at the end of the novel, and he leans willingly toward the apotheosis he believes possible with Honor.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

The title of this play, A Severed Head, is a key clue to the underlying themes. The “head” theme appears in the first act, when Alexander, after stopping at a gallery to pick up one of his sculptures, stops in at Martin’s house to offer condolence. Martin asks to see the sculpture, and Alexander unpacks a head of Antonia. Martin protests that it cannot be Antonia without her body, but Alexander answers that “heads are us most of all; they are the apex of our incarnation.” Further, he adds, “the head can represent the female genitals, feared not desired.”

Martin introduces the associated theme of power in his reply: “You’re a magician too, you know. You gain power over people by making images of them.” Power is an important issue in this play. Martin seems to have less power than the other men: He loses Antonia, then Georgie, and he is under Antonia and Palmer’s power through most of the play.

As the play progresses it is apparent that Honor also has a great deal of power. She is the one who discovers the affair between Martin and Georgie and tells Palmer and Antonia. She is also the one who introduces Alexander and Georgie, which leads to their affair. She is a catalyst in the affairs of the others and does not hesitate to use her power. In act 3, when Martin professes his love and apprehension of her, which he believes is deeper than ordinary knowledge, she defines herself in mythic terms.I have become a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used, when they put a piece of gold on the tongue to make the head utter prophecies. And perhaps long acquaintance with such an object might lead one to a very strange knowledge indeed.

Honor, the anthropologist who has lived in many lands and acquired occult knowledge, as she demonstrates earlier with her Japanese sword trick, has also acquired power, which comes with this knowledge.

Yet, once he discovers the incestuous relationship between Palmer and Honor, Martin also gains power. Antonia returns to him. When Palmer comes to Martin’s home to retrieve Antonia and she resists, he strikes Palmer, who then backs off. This is the first time he fights Palmer’s power and wins. When Antonia confesses that she has been involved in an affair with Alexander, the scales fall from Martin’s eyes and he realizes that his comfortable life has been based on illusion. Finally able to see the truth, Martin is a changed man, a man worthy to be Honor’s mate. She returns to him and reminds him of a myth in which a king’s friend, having seen the queen naked, finds out he must either die or kill the king and marry her. Martin, having seen the real Honor, must now be her consort.

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