Thematic Notes for
A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME
(Note: This outline was prepared for a class that had, so far, only read
half of Dance. Therefore, examples cited are drawn only from the first
I. Social and political themes
A. Dance as a picture of its times
Powell has captured a whole era of British social history, surveying social
occasions of all kinds, recording slang, fashions of the moment, and many
political and social events which were contemporary topics of discussion.
B. Upper class decline
The overall view of many commentators is that Dance reveals a definite
decline in the upper class. This decline is revealed, for example, by instances
of upper class sympathy with communism and radical ideas (which by their
nature are inimical to upper-class interests):
And by upper class acceptance of individuals without traditional upper
class political ideas or sympathies:
Uncle Giles as "a bit of a radical"
Sillery leads left-wing causes
Quiggin, Widmerpool, Thomsitt
C. Family Values
The narrator's own lifestyle and conservative ideas are quietly allowed
to appear superior to some of the many alternative lifestyles depicted.
For example, the treatment of radicals is somewhat more farcical than the
treatment of other characters, i.e., communism and fellow-traveling are
made objects of fun more so than conservatism.
Compare the treatment of Quiggin, Gypsy, and Guggenbühl
with that of George Tolland and General Conyers.
Powell has left largely untreated the branch of conservative
Britains who were enthusiastic about Fascism.
II. Individuals and relationships
A. Toleration of others
Toleration is urged on Nick by several characters:
Although characters are presented with only a few details, as might be
the case if one were being introduced to them at a party, and none are
fully rendered (even the narrator), nonetheless, the characters in Dance
are individuals, often eccentric, as well as unique. The impression is
given that all people are of equal interest.
QU/ LeBas' advice to Nick (p. 224)
BM/ Gypsy's advice at Deacon's party (p. 249)
AW/ Mrs. Erdleigh's advice to Nick (p. 15)
A wide variety of relationships, in and out of marriage, are depicted
sympathetically and with genuine interest.
In particular, homosexuality and sexual liberation are treated tolerantly:
The narrator makes the point didactically: "All people driven alike by
the same furies, are seen up close to be equally extraordinary"
QU/ Akworth affair (p. 13)
QU/ Oscar Wilde reference (p. 41, 43)
QU/ Sillery as Tiresias---essentially sexless (p. 208, 214)
QU/ Gwen McReith---bisexual? (p. 81)
B. Impossibility of knowing the feelings and thoughts of others
Universal narcissism prevents anyone really knowing another person.
The thoughts of characters other than the narrator are never revealed,
only speculation (clearly labeled as such) as to these thoughts by the
Other people's actions often are misunderstood, unreadable, and/or ambiguous:
Even one's own motives may be unreadable:
QU/ LeBas seems simultaneously "angry and dispairing" (p.
QU/ Cobberton's rescue of LeBas 'happy or unhappy'? (p. 50)
QU/ Nick's inability to understand Gwen McReith (p. 81++)
QU/ The Scandinavians differing attitudes towards Widmerpool
before and after he arranges their reconciliation (p. 158)
BM/ Gypsy clings to Nick "whether as an affectionate gesture,
a means of encouraging sympathy or merely to maintain her balance" is uncertain.
AW/ The reason for Le Bas' attack are many. Exactly what
caused it can't be known. (p. 196)
CCR/ Moreland's reasons for marrying are unknowable.
CCR/ The waitress at Casanova's Chinese Restaurant looks
"embarrassed or cunning" (p. 37).
The true nature of someone else's marriage is particularly unknowable.
BM/ Jenkins himself is unsure just why he seeks out Jean
while visiting at Stourwater. (p. 213)
C. What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you think
happens to you
This is one interpretation of General Conyer's strictures on the preservation
of one's 'personal myth' (BDFR p. 147). It means that what is important
is keeping one's personal view of life in sync with 'real' life.
Some qualities that form one's personal myth are:
living by will vs. living by the imagination
In each case, Widmerpool is an example of the first modality; Nick of the
second. The last three are scales of the Myers-Briggs personality test,
which is an elaboration of Jung's theory of personality. In Myers-Briggs
terms, Widmerpool is an ESTJ; Nick, diametrically opposite, is an INFP.
seeing life as drama vs. seeing life as comedy
thinking vs. feeling
extroversion vs. introversion
judging (i.e. reaching closure) vs. process (going with the flow)
Characters who experience particularly severe difficulties with their
'personal myth' include: Widmerpool, Erridge, Roland Gwatkin., and X. Trapnel.
Tragedy can result when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that
life does not fit one's 'personal myth'.
D. People don't change, we just get used to them
Characters in Dance may on occasion lead dynamic lives, but are largely
static in the basic constitution of their personalities. Nonetheless, Nick
and the reader respond to them over the course of the novels differently
at different times. Many characters appear to mellow but arguably they
do not change, it is only the narrator's view of them that shifts.
As further examples: Consider any of these characters: Quiggin, Mona, Eleanor,
Frederica, Craggs, Gypsy, Dicky Umfraville, Bithel. Each seems to change
over the course of Dance, often mellowing in some sense. In each case,
however, does the character actually change? Or, is it simply that the
narrator (or the reader's) attitude toward the character changes: that
one becomes accustomed to them?
QU/ The description of Templer (p. 20) summarizes the treatment
of almost every character: "He had a thin face and light blue eyes
that gave out a perpetual and quite mechanical sparkle: at first engaging:
then irritating: and finally a normal and inevitable aspect of his features
that one no longer noticed."
QU/ narrator's changed attitude toward LeBas (p. 28).
AW/ Templer's changed attitude toward Widmerpool (p. 46).
LM-TK/ Audrey Maclintick, without changing her nagging behavior
one bit, becomes a more sympathetic character the longer she lives with
Moreland and one sees how much she really cares for him.
QU-HSH/ The most complex example is the evolution of Nick's
attitude toward Widmerpool. Widmerpool, despite massive changes in circumstances,
stays pretty much the same. Nick's view of him, however, changes: from
ridicule: to interest and sympathy: to irritation, amazement, and respect
(at his success): to familiarity and renewed dislike (during the war):
to indifference to his circumstances, but continued interest in him as
a specimen of human life.
This theme blends in with the theme of tolerance. Time facilitates
Counter-examples. It can be argued that some characters actually do
change. (Stringham, perhaps) But even so, note how much of the character's
underlying personality is still fixed. (In Stringham's case, although he
loses his manic side, he is still totally self-absorbed.)
A. Sources of humor in Dance
Plot: how accidents alter plans; life can be capricious:
Social life: the ordinary mishaps of social interaction, i.e., misunderstandings,
conversations at cross-purposes, combinations of incompatible social types:
QU/ LeBas' arrest and Widmerpool's reaction (p.47).
QU/ Stripling's frustrated attempt to plant a po on Sunny
Contrast between narration and dialog: The narrator's viewpoint
is analytical; his tone cool and detached; his language formal and at times
complex and involuted. In contrast, dialog is lively and naturalistic (meaning
that it could plausibly be the transcription of the spoken words of actual
persons). This contrast is consistently humorous and reinforces several
overall themes: the presence of humor at every level of human interaction,
and the inability of life to live up to our expectations of it.
QU/ Stringham and Widmerpool (p. 48).
QU/ Stripling and Farebrother (p. 98).
QU/ "I might not have been there" (p. 99).
BM/ The unusual combination of characters at Milly Andriadis'
BM/ Specifically the interactions of Widmerpool, Gypsy, Mr.
Deacon and Stringham.
AW/ The conversation of Quiggin, Mona, Stripling and Mrs.
Erdleigh at the Templer's (pp. 89-98).
Outlandish yet apt similes: the narrator constantly gives surprising
yet telling interpretations of the expressions and actions of other characters.
These are consistently humorous.
QU/ Buster sneers at his cigarette-holder 'as if this object
were not nearly valuable enough to presume to belong to him.' (p. 55)
BM/ Widmerpool stares at Gypsy 'regarding her much as a doctor,
suspecting a malignant growth might examine a diseased organism under the
mcroscope.' (p. 89)
AW/ Jenkins addresses Mrs. Erdleigh 'in the way that a witness,
cross-questioned by counsel, replies to the judge.' (pp. 8-9)
B. Comparison with Jane Austen
The importance of humor in everyday life is fundamental to the philosophy
of life of Miss Elizabeth Bennett (heroine of Pride and Prejudice)
and, presumably, fundamental to Austen's philosophy. This is an important
theme of Dance also.
Misunderstanding is the basis for much of Austen's humor (e.g., Elizabeth
and Darcy's ill-conceived first impressions in Pride and Prejudice;
Emma Woodhouse's long series of misreadings of people in Emma.).
This is also characteristic of Dance, but treated much less broadly.
Eccentricity of individual characters is a systematic source of humor
in both Austen and Powell.
The humor of both Powell and Austen is, for the most part, tolerant,
not cruel (possibly excepting the treatment of Widmerpool).
C. Comparison with George Meredith
In "An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit", Meredith distinguishes
satire, irony and humor.
If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled
by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.
Satire, Irony and Humor are all present in Dance, but Humor, as defined
by Meredith, is the most important aspect of both Powell's and Meredith's
comedy. Note how this type of comedy is tolerant of its object.
If instead of falling foul of the ridiculous person with a satiric
rod, to make him writhe and shriek aloud, you prefer to sting him under
a semi-caress, by which he shall in his anguish be rendered dubious, whether
indeed anything has hurt him, you are an engine of Irony.
If you laugh round him, tumble him, roll him about, deal him a smack,
and drop a tear on him, own his likeness to you, and yours to your neighbor,
spare him as little as you shun, pity him as much as you expose, it is
a spirit of Humor that is moving you.
In Widmerpool, we have a character in many ways like Sir Willoughby
Patterne (central character of Meredith's masterpiece, The Egoist):
both are convinced the world revolves around them, both are super sensitive
to the opinions of others, both are themselves entirely without a sense
D. Comedy is close to melancholy.
This aspect of Powell's comedy sets him apart from Austen and Meredith.
BM/ The sugar incident is both unroariously funny and depressing:
the reader has the same reaction as the characters in the novel.
AW/ Widmerpool puts Stringham to bed: a hilarious incident
but also sad (p. 207-208).
KO/ Duport's revelation of Jean's infidelity: a highly comic
scene but disturbing as well as sad. (p. 175-179).
IV. Art and Life
A. References to works of art in Dance.
Characters are often described using a work of art.
Echoes of other prose works in Dance:
QU/ Stringham = Veronese's Alexander (p. 8)
QU/ Lebas - Knave of Hearts, Oriental god, figure from a
Bayeux tapestry (p. 26)
QU/ Sunny Farebrother = Col. Newcomb (p. 78)
QU/ Madame Leroy = Circe (p. 111)
QU/ Templer's home = "The Enchanted Castle" by Loraine (p.
QU/ Mark Members = "Boyhood of Raleigh", "The Dying Gladiator"
QU/ Group comparison: (p. 73)
Stringham = Hamlet
Tuffy = Polonius
Buster = Claudius
Mrs. Foxe = Gertrude
QU-HSH/ Remembrance of Things Past is reflected in
the overture, the general set-up: the narrator remembers a large part of
his whole life, this memory triggered by a specific experience.
QU/ Kipling Stalky and Co. (another novel about 3
friends at school)
QU, BM/ Michael Arlen's The Green Hat (a novel about
London in the roaring 20's which is read by Nick in QU, NIck subsequently
lives in Shepard's Market where The Green Hat takes place.
Specific artistic/literary objects are mythologizied and almost function
LM/ Pepys' diary (p. 11-12)
VB /Byron letter (p. 170-171)
MP/ Proust passage (p. 119-121)
BDFR/ Creevy's papers (p. 43)
BDFR/ Gronow's reminiscences (p. 43-44)
Some places are mythologized:
QU+/ Stringham's Modigliani. Represents the ineffable value
of art. Passes from Stringham to Pamela to Widmerpool to Bithel to Henderson.
BM+/ Deacon's "Boyhood of Cyrus". First seen at the Walpole-Wilson's,
is recalled many times even though it is not present, sometimes merely
by hearing the name 'Cyrus'. Comes to symbolize young love.
BM+/ The tapestries, "The Seven Deadly Sins". In counterpoint
to "Boyhood of Cyrus", they represent mature love, at least in some aspects.
They are frequently recalled by the narrator (right up through HSH).
LM+/ The Sleaford Veronese. Symbolizes the artistic wealth
of the upper classes. It is not well taken care of by the Sleaford's and
is eventually sold.
CCR+/ Bernini's statue "Truth Unveiled by Time". Sold to
Deacon by Norman and retrieved after his death.
Mythological, occult, and magical elements also appear:
The ubiquitous references to other works of art give the impression that
all western civilization, particularly literary history and art history,
are commenting on the events of Dance. This systematic incorporation of
artistic references suggests that Art is relevant to Life.
QU/ Madame Leroy introduces Nick to her guests like Circe
QU/ Peter's house is described as a sea-palace of mystery
as painted by Claude Lorrain (p. 73).
QU/ Sillery is compared with Tiresias (p. 208).
BM/ Shepherd's Market is an enchanted precinct (p. 153).
Likewise, Stourwater (p. 184-5).
AW/ Dinner with Peter, Mona and Jean is compared with a ritual
feast (p. 63).
CCR/ The bombed-out remains of the Mortimer are described
as a "triumphal arch erected laboriously by dwarfs, or the gateway to some
unknown, forbidden domain, the lair of sorcerers" (p. 1).
CCR/ Lady Warminster is compared to Cassandra (p. 73).
But, art is useful only to those sympathetic to it, a point made didactically
B. As a work of art, Dance is naturalistic
Dance is intentionally naturalistic or realistic
But naturalism is as artificial a means of writing as any other style.
Apropos of this point, see the remarks of X. Trapnel (BDFR p 214-217)
which are usually taken as Powell's own views on naturalism.
Dialog is like recorded speech; characters are individuals, not types.
Narrative is (mostly) straight forward with respect to the flow of time.
Real events and characters are incorporated.
Powell has tried to make the books a record of his times.
Although naturalistic in detail (particularly the dialog), the structure
of Dance (i.e., its hierarchical organization and elaborate formal symmetry)
is very contrived (as, by definition, are all works of art, i.e. art =
V. The Pattern of Life
A. Life is patterned
This thesis is supported by the elaborate structure of the novel and the
extensive use of formal symmetry.
It is also stated, didactically in the title, the overture, and by many
references to life as a dance:
Poussin's painting "A Dance to the Music of Time" has this
QU/ Overture: Classical allusions suggest applicability of
AP's ideas to our time and all time.
QU/ Overture: Last sentence suggests existence of "laws of
B. The Occult
The apparent success of occultists suggests that they are more in touch
with the 'pattern of life' than others:
Powellian coincidences are evidence of the power of the occult since "coincidence
= magic in action" (according to Dr. Trelawney).
AW/ Mrs. Erdleigh's predictions
KO/ Dr. Trelawney' predictions anticipating both world wars.
Occult success, fortuitous or not, definitely supports the thesis that
life is patterned.
C. Jungian Synchronicity
(These observations are based, in part, on "Anthony Powell's Secret Harmonies:
Music in a Jungian Key" by Margaret Boe Birns.)
Jung's theory of "synchronicity" (= "meaningful coincidence") is central
to the mysterious level of life in Powell's novels that he refers to as
the 'music of time'.
Synchronicity is (1) a sympathetic falling together of an inner state
of mind and outer events, or (2) certain types of events that cluster together,
or sympathetically cross-connect. The second definition applies to many
features of Dance.
As examples one may cite the many coincidental meetings in Dance:
Also synchronistic are the cyclic repetitions and symmetrical events in
BM/ Nick and Widmerpool are invited to dinner at the Walpole-Wilsons.
Later that evening they run into Stringham.
BM/ Stringham, Widmerpool, Prince Theodoric, Sir Magnus,
Truscott all present at Milly Andriadis' party reappear when the Walpole-Wilson's
party visits Stourwater.
AW/ Nick runs into Templer and Jean at the Ritz.
LM/ Widmerpool and Nick coinsidentally meet At Lady Molly's
twice: at the beginning and end of the novel.
Here is a more elaborate example of simultaneous synchronicity from KO:
QU-HSH/ Widmerpool's humiliations: banana incident, sugar
pouring, backing over Sir Magnus' urn, etc.
QU-HSH/ The many parallels between Nick and Widmerpool
both sent to La Grenadiere to learn French
both fall in love with Barbara Goring
both become involved with Gypsy Jones
both announce engagements at Lady Molly's
both join the Welch regiment and subsequently have parallel
CCR-SA/ Moreland marries Matilda whose first husband was
Carolo who runs away with Audrey Maclintick who later lives with Moreland.
BM, CCR/ Stringham brings Nick to Mrs. Andriadis' party.
Dicky Umfraville (an older version of Stringham) repeats the introduction
several years later.
Many more examples are listed in A
Powell uses coincidence to introduce a mythical or archetypal dimension
to his work. By means of coincidences, which seem to break through ordinary
history, Powell gives us a sense that powerful, transpersonal forces are
afoot. Time is a canvas on which numinous forces impress a mysterious pattern.
KO/ As the Archduke Francis Ferdinand is being murdered in
Sarajevo, the furies visit Nick's family also: Albert resigns, Billson
breaks down and Uncle Giles arrives to announce the events that presage
W.W.I. The domestic anarchy of the Jenkins household is synchronistic with
the anarchy into which the world is being plunged.
KO/ Later in the novel, the arrival of Widmerpool at Sir
Magnus Donners' heralds the advent of W.W.II. Widmerpool is explicitly
described as feminine, in other words the furies present themselves 'in
drag'. The 'domestic' anarachy on display at Stourwater (Betty Templer's
unhappiness, friction between Moreland and Matilda) is synchronistic with
the anarchy into which the world is again being plunged.
Widmerpool is involved in more synchronistic events than any other character
and often a projects feelings of doom and/or time out of joint.