Thematic Notes for


(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 six volumes.)

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:

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.

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.

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"

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 narrator.

Other people's actions often are misunderstood, unreadable, and/or ambiguous:

Even one's own motives may be unreadable: The true nature of someone else's marriage is particularly unknowable.

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
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)
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.

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?

This theme  blends in with the theme of tolerance. Time facilitates tolerance.

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.)

III. Humor

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: 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.

Outlandish yet apt similes: the narrator constantly gives surprising yet telling interpretations of the expressions and actions of other characters. These are consistently humorous.

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.
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.
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.

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 of humor.

D. Comedy is close to melancholy.

This aspect of Powell's comedy sets him apart from Austen and Meredith.

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: Pastiche Specific artistic/literary objects are mythologizied and almost function as characters Some places are mythologized: 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.

But, art is useful only to those sympathetic to it, a point made didactically several times.

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.

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 = artifice).

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:

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).

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 the novels: Here is a more elaborate example of simultaneous synchronicity from KO: 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.

Widmerpool is involved in more synchronistic events than any other character and often a projects feelings of doom and/or time out of joint.