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Literature Study GuidesArcadiaAct 1 Scene 2 Summary

Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary



In the same room, in the present time, nothing has changed. Hannah Jarvis is wearing comfortable modern clothes as she flips through Lady Croom's garden books from the previous scene. After comparing the image in one book to the view from the window, she exits to the garden. Chloë Coverly enters, talking to Bernard Nightingale about the history of the garden that Hannah is writing. Bernard is there to meet with Hannah, who is sorting through the estate's papers for her book. The conversation between Chloë and Bernard is marked by humorous misunderstandings. Bernard is somewhat nervous and asks Chloë to keep his identity a secret from Hannah. Assuming Bernard wants to surprise Hannah, Chloë gives him a different name as she leaves to find her.

Valentine and Gus Coverly pop in and out of the room at different times; both seem to be looking for something or someone. There is much activity on the estate as residents prepare for a costume party in the garden. Again the conversation is filled with humorous misunderstandings and absurd statements, such as Valentine's saying he is going to take his tortoise, Lightning, for his "run" or "I often sit with my eyes closed and it doesn't necessarily mean I'm awake." Valentine explains Hannah is writing about the hermit of Sidley Park, not just the garden.

Hannah Jarvis returns to meet Mr. Peacock, the pseudonym Chloë has given Bernard Nightingale. He tries to charm Hannah, who is unimpressed by his compliments and annoyed by his long-winded monologues. He finally explains he needs access to the estate papers she is curating to find information about the poet Ezra Chater for a lecture he is giving the following week. She mentions an academic from Oxford named Nightingale gave her last book a scathing review in the Observer. When she asks if Bernard knows him, he does not give a direct answer. They discuss the Coverly family and available estate records. On seeing Richard Noakes's drawings of Sidley Park in its classical style, Bernard says, "Lovely. The real England." Hannah scolds him for being silly. She explains all English landscape design was based on European paintings, which were themselves visualizations of classic works of literature. She explains her inspiration for writing about the hermit of Sidley Park as a symbol for the fall of the orderly intellect of the Enlightenment into the chaotic emotionalism of the Romantic era, "The decline from thinking to feeling, you see."

When Chloë returns, she lets slip that Bernard's real name is Nightingale. Hannah realizes she has been chatting with the Byron expert who hammered her in his review of her last book. She is furious, but Bernard convinces her they could collaborate on a piece about Byron that would upset the other Byron scholars. He produces a copy of "The Couch of Eros," inscribed by Chater to Septimus that had once belonged to Lord Byron. He explains that letters he found inside the book led him to surmise Lord Byron had shot Chater in a duel after having an affair with Chater's wife. Hannah reluctantly agrees to share information. After he leaves, Chloë comments on his sexual energy and invites him to their party.


Stoppard introduces the key players in the present time and quickly reveals their character through visual as well as verbal elements. Hannah's clothing, described as "not frivolous," fits her personality as well. She is straightforward, hardworking, honest, and sensible. Clearly, members of the Coverly family admire her and have given her access to the estate's papers. Hannah is respectful and well mannered without being servile. Bernard's false servility and fawning annoy Hannah because she is confident and does not need shallow praise to prop her ego.

Bernard Nightingale is described as a flamboyant dresser. Chloë gives him the pseudonym "Peacock" because of the peacock-colored pocket-handkerchief he wears with his deliberately conservative suit. But the name is also an appropriate description of his arrogant, preening manner. It is quickly clear that Bernard is a know-it-all who craves attention, feeling compelled to show off his knowledge whenever possible. At times he treats Hannah as a student rather than a peer by assuming she needs him to explain what she is saying, such as that Valentine's humor is an example of "the joke that consoles" or that "sage of lunacy" is an oxymoron. In addition, his attitude may well reveal an underlying bias against women. If Bernard's knowledge is indeed deep, it comes across as superficial and forced, based on his personal needs for recognition instead of historical accuracy. Whereas Septimus may be more the classical scholar seeking knowledge, or truth, Bernard is the more romantic self-aggrandizing, self-indulgent scholar, interpreting evidence to suit his own theories, which are at best frivolous. He is a wobbly version of Septimus. Although Septimus is distracted while tutoring, Bernard genuinely does not care about his students.

The modern Coverlys are descendants of the 19th-century Coverlys from Scene 1. The characterizations reveal both similarities and differences. In the past, Lady Croom dominates scenes whereas her modern counterpart is never seen. Instead, Hannah Jarvis is closely following plans for the gardens. Both Hannah and the 19th-century Lady Croom reflect classical choices up to a point; Lady Croom in her desire to keep the gardens as they are—in harmony with cultivated nature—and Hannah as a serious scholar, unmoved by fashion and trends. However their interests in carnal knowledge differ; Lady Croom has her nighttime activities while Hannah is strictly interested in scholarly pursuits. Interestingly Bernard, the haughty but highly libidinous academic, pans her accessible, popular history, but she is by far the more reliable scholar despite her popular success.

The nonverbal, modern Gus Coverly is the opposite of his brash, outgoing ancestor Augustus, who appears later. Like Thomasina, Valentine Coverly is a mathematician, but he lacks her genius and confidence. He reveals his self-doubt in his humor. A few years older than Thomasina, Chloë lacks her sexual innocence but also her appetite for gaining intellectual knowledge; Chloë is knowledgeable and comfortable in other ways, particularly her own sexuality.

The shared setting anchors the intertwining stories, creating a sense of continuity and permanence over time. Symbols of the continuity of time, such as the appearance of the tortoise throughout and the presence of the same props from scene to scene, blur the separation of past and present. Elements in the present echo the past with its mix of Coverly family members, visiting writers and intellectuals, sexual attractions and activities, and focus on the estate gardens. The cast of characters is like a wobbly mirror of past and present as the characters match up, though not always perfectly. In addition to the twin tortoises, the characters of Augustus and Gus are played by the same actor. With other past and present characters having strong connections, Stoppard creates a sense of déjà vu for the audience.

The symbol of heat appears throughout the play. Heat is inextricably tied to the theme of time because of the second law of thermodynamics—everything is in a state of entropy, which is a constant move toward disorder and heat death in the universe. Actions are irreversible, and Hannah Jarvis discusses the destructive relationship between heat and time when she connects the "decline from thinking to feeling" during the shift from the Age of Reason to the Romantic era. Chloë Coverly unknowingly adds another layer of understanding to the symbol of heat with her commentary about Bernard's sexual energy and her brother's emotional attachment to Hannah. The themes of knowledge—carnal, historical, experiential, and scientific—begin to intersect as the modern researchers probe into the past.

The symbol of the garden is addressed in the focus on its past transformation, showing the transition from Classical to Romantic ideals. Hannah explains that in 1730, Sidley Park was "paradise in the age of reason," but by 1760 it had been ploughed under by Capability Brown, the landscape architect who favored large vistas of grass with a few trees rather than patterns of box hedges of the previous era. In the play Richard Noakes is set to continue the transformation by changing the neat, sweeping lawns to wild, untamed nature.

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