Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Choice, Contingency, and the Crack of Doom: Penelope Lively's Judgment Day

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Choice, Contingency, and the Crack of Doom: Penelope Lively's Judgment Day

Article excerpt

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Penelope Lively's fourth novel, Judgment Day (1981), is relatively short and deceptively simple--its settings, characters, and actions easy enough to comprehend, its philosophical underpinnings more complex and challenging. This complexity arises especially from its treatment of the indeterminate interactions between choice and contingency in their effects on characters' lives. I will discuss this relationship in general before returning to Judgment Day, its author's most sophisticated treatment of the subject, although it is a consistent concern in her fiction and nonfiction early and late. Published thirty years after Judgment Day, her memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites (2013) characterizes life as "a perverse mixture of choice and contingency" (26), "perverse" because of this yoking of two disjunctive factors that cannot conceptually or experientially be disentangled, while the narrator of her 1993 novel Cleopatra's Sister, suggesting the intricacy of this entanglement, states that "[c]hoice and contingency form a delicate partnership" and an "uneasy balance"--" a conjunction so capricious that it hardly bears contemplation" (4, 15). (1) Lively's novels, however, often in effect "contemplate" this relationship. It elicits narrators' comments, influences protagonists' thinking, and asserts itself in characters' experiences. Its workings are profound and puzzling. It is impossible to single out and comprehend the influence either of these factors exerts on the other or on an individual life, let alone how it operates on and within a group. On the one hand, many contingent events--occurrences random and thus unpredictable--influence people's lives and the conditions under which they make choices as well as the consequences of those choices. On the other hand, choices influence circumstances under which randomness can occur. Where does one end and the other begin?

How people feel about these matters also involves complexity. Belief in the supremacy of free will or choice can support the illusion, often subverted by experience, that individuals are fully in charge of their lives. Others feel the insecurity of being victims of random events or of being caught between choice and contingency, in some cases frightened by the unpredictable consequences of making significant decisions. Then again, insecure people can construe harmful random occurrences or decisions with poor outcomes as expressions of a negative fate that precludes both choice and contingency. (2) It is often hard for those invested in one or more of these perspectives to maintain a sense of a safe and capable identity that confidently can be projected into the future. While a number of Lively's novels dramatize, to a greater or lesser degree, the often-dispiriting effects of the "perverse mixture" she identifies, they also occasionally allow characters to escape from feeling themselves the victims of either contingency or fate: maybe with good choices and good luck one can secure a confident identity bolstered by the sometimes self-fulfilling force of optimism--people and their experiences vary.

Nevertheless, unproblematic or sustained optimism rarely characterizes Lively's chief protagonists. What interests her is how people confront the contingency-choice relationship as members of a wildly aspirational species freighted with consciousness. Thus she says, in a statement consistent with the main thrust of her novelistic practice, that "[i]f fiction is to help at all in the process of living, it is by illuminating its conflicts and its ambiguities" ("Bones" 15). These Judgment Day illuminates by means of a binary propensity entailing pairs of factors circumstantial and psychological: choice and contingency, each achieving a degree of clarity through contrast with determinism or necessity, but also isolation/connection and chaos/order as conditions--partially shaped by choice and contingency--that everyone experiences. In Lively's schema these three sets of interacting factors constitute the "conflicts and. …

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