Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 263

The most obvious theme of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow is stated as the title of the first chapter: "What goes around comes around." The Nazi doctor Odilo Unverdorben is shown in a state of almost total paralysis, lying on a table and being examined by physicians. In other words, he is in the same state of helplessness as the prisoners at Auschwitz whom he experimented on and murdered nearly 50 years earlier.

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The key to the other themes lies partly in the fact that the story is told in reverse, narrated by a Doppelganger-like consciousness. We see first Unverdorben's life under an assumed identity (Tod T. Friendly) in the US and then, his arrival in the US in 1948, then his extermination of prisoners in Auschwitz, then finally his youth, childhood, and even pre-birth. Arguably this reversed narration is emblematic of the irrationality of life. Things actually seem to make more sense in a way if told backwards. And in some way, this purges life of its cruelty and decay. At Auschwitz, the prisoners come back to life, released from the gas chambers. The corruption of adulthood gives way to the innocence of childhood and the greater innocence of the womb.

Another theme is that human beings fail to see their errors, their crimes, until they have been committed. It is Unverdorben's "heart" that narrates the story, which is presented in a kind of dreamworld in which waiters pay their customers and an abortionist implants a fetus into his patient. Only the heart has been able to understand Unverdorben's crimes, by seeing them in reverse.

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