Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

Typical of Janette Turner Hospital’s stories, “Unperformed Experiments Have No Results” is a story in which a personal experience of considerable emotional significance is controlled by the central character’s attempt to understand the philosophical significance of the event. In this story, the philosophical issue of time and accident is announced in the first two paragraphs when Philippa says she is no longer certain of chronology and finds herself obsessed with the neatness of patterns of chance and the random conjunction of events. However, she says the closer she tries to focus her memory about the sequence of the events that seem so randomly conjoined, the hazier things become. She theorizes that this is the result of the scientific notion that a person cannot engage in an act of observation without changing the thing observed.

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The man she sees paddling the canoe and who she thinks is her friend Brian is an emblem of her perception of him—persistent, determined, adventurous, and battling against all odds—all qualities that she feels she does not possess. Brian is a risk taker and a man of some passion, thus appearing in her dream as Ophelia. Philippa, however, like Hamlet, can only look on and is never able to take the same kinds of risky plunges that Brian does. Although there is no indication of any romantic relationship between Philippa and Brian, they do seem complementary soul mates: he the scientist, but passionate and adventurous, and she the artist, but cool and repressed.

The theme of decisions avoided and roads not taken is paralleled by the theme of time in the story. When Brian says in his message to her, “Pity we can’t go backwards,” she considers writing to Brian’s mother telling her that Brian is not lost but has simply lost track of time. She thinks that given the rules of relativity, she and Brian could unclimb the waterfall and go back through the looking glass to watch the future before it became the present. However, Philippa is much too logical to believe in such fantasies; she is simply recalling Brian’s own chiding her that artsy types like her do not know the basic facts about relativity.

When Philippa hears about the birch-bark canoe being washed up without the man, she fantasizes a conversation with Brian in which he scolds her for living in a vague world of her mind, making things up and believing they are real. When she tries to argue with him in her fantasy that she verifies things the same way he does, checking around to determine whether the story about the man in the birch-bark canoe is a figment of her mind or an actual event, he says he is not even going to respond to that. Philippa imagines Brian telling her the trick is to approach old problems from a new angle every time because half the battle is how one frames the question. “Unperformed experiments have no results,” he says. Although Philippa agrees with this statement, she is more reluctant than Brian to take experimental chances. Brian’s being lost (like the man in the canoe) may suggest the danger of taking chances and fighting against the current, but Philippa’s timid reluctance leaves her becalmed and safe but somehow unfulfilled.

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