Friday, February 19, 2010

Layering in the novel The Go-Between

Recently Jeanette picked up the book I was reading, The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. She read the backliner note about this novel being “richly layered” and asked me what that meant. At the time I didn’t come up with a ready answer, but after some thought from the next day on until I finished the book I have come up with the following notes. I had seen the film based on the book and then read the book back in the early 1970s when I was in college, but with a larger frame of reference from the passing decades I now see more of what Hartley was really saying, probably because I’m close point of view in the book which is that of a man in his early sixties.

The book is ostensibly the recounting of a painful incident in the story of a boy growing up which is the basis of his being shut off from the experience of life on an emotional level.

Overlaid on or interwoven into that story frame are the following elements:

A young woman trying to break away from social constraints.

Family structure and organization tested.

An exploration of what true gentlemanliness is.

The effects of sin.

Nostalgia for a past that didn’t fully realize its promise.

Understanding the realm of the senses.

Searching the occult realm and finding it uncontrollable and disastrous.

Learning the rules of society.

Being defined by the words of others.

False responsibility bearing and responsibility abdication.

Maturation and growing a conscience.

The communication process.

Also, there is some overall social criticism against the old caste system and the lack of social mobility in the late Victorian era.

These are not just topics dealt with in these book or themes explored, but definite layers which could be followed out on their own through the length of the book. Others may define “layering” in a different way, but this is how I happened to see it in the book which I just finished reading this morning.

The Go-Between is a painful book. We read it like we do the horrendous Greek tragedies of old because it strikes a chord by telling us unpleasant truths in an insightful way. Pain, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, is a message that something is wrong. In the end of the book the woman who manipulated the storyteller’s childhood world so horrifically is still denying her complicity in the consequences of what she did and redefining the past to keep from taking the blame. Thus, she’s trapped in the past, but Hartley’s now grown character can change, if he will.

When others won’t accept responsibility for the past, it’s up to you to make sense of it. The Christian has the extra resource Jesus. Those who will not learn from pain will never get to all the joys they could.

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