Contemplating Nothing



Here are some musings on Henry Green’s Nothing (1950), for Mary Ann Caws’s seminar.

Still trying to consider what mode of looking his writing most closely resembles.

Despite its title, Nothing traces a fair amount of plot around the various engagements of two young people, Philip Weatherby and Mary Pomfret, and their widowed parents, former lovers Jane Weatherby and John Pomfret. Published in 1950, Nothing has everything to do with the way the war intervened and split generations. When Philip wishes that every one of his parents’ generation “ought to be liquidated,” he continues, “They’re wicked darling…They’ve had two frightful wars they’ve done nothing about except fight in and they’re rotten to the core” (56). The locution draws attention to what it is to do anything. The inability to act or to invest permeates the novel. Every action, even an engagement, results in drawn out worry and conversation amounting to nothing.

The disconnect between the generations has as much to do with the new pressures of time felt by the children as it has to do with shifting tastes of parents and children. In Nothing work preoccupies both generations. The notion of joining a working class generates endless sadness and a spare, tedious melancholy. “And so it will be the whole of my life. I’ll do a little bit better every year and get nowhere in the end” (43). They have entered a new generation of workers, which Green presents with ambivalence. In response to Liz’s, “Where have you been all day,” Pomfret answers “This endless work work work” (74). After an incident in which she contemplates the proper decorum about recognizing people outside of predetermined meetings, Jane meditates on the schemes and seductions of her past. She remarks “I suppose people had much more time on their hands those days which made them so dangerous” (47). The sense that time before the wars was funded and unlimited contrasts anxiously with the sense that time is measured and inexorable in the new working life.

Apart from, or as potential reparative to, the distinction of the two generations, Green draws attention to a search for family, a sense of continuity. When Mary pushes Philip to reveal “what’s so thrilling” about his uncle, Philip declares.

I see you haven’t got the idea” he said. “I imagine you either have the feeling or you don’t. I just feel a thing for my family that’s all. Oh we’re nobodies, our names have never been in history or any of that rot, I simply’d like to see them and i don’t ever seem to (42).

Philip’s desire for connection is contradictory. He seeks a sense of belonging, but refuses the one available to him. “That’s where the whole difference lies,” he said “between our generations. Their whole lot is absolutely unbridled.” “Yes Philip but they are the generation you’ve just said you want to meet aren’t they?” (22). Philip wishes to know the unknown (relations he has never met) and revile the available unknowable (parents whose actions baffle him). The hope of generational links is dashed again and again. Jane denies Philip’s desire to meet his relatives, even as she protests his anti-sociability.  Reference to psychoanalysis draws a particular point on the parents’ interference in their children’s love lives, the children’s blaming the parents, as well as on the trauma Jane’s young daughter Penelope feels after playing at being married to John Pomfret. Much of the discussion of when the younger ones will move out and move on seems to reinforce rifts in family.

As he did in the passage we received last week, Green almost bookends scenes with decorative bouquets of description.

It was almost as it, in time, the party had leaped forward between those mirrors so much had been recorded only to be lost, so much champagne had been consumed while, as day passes over a pond, no trace was left in any of their minds, or hardly none, just the vague memory of friendly weather, a fading riot of June stayed perhaps in their throats as the waiters withdrew through three or four remained to serve coffee brandy and port. (87).

The infinity mirrors reflect the continuing, lost, recursive future that sprawls in front of its characters.