Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)