Literature Study GuidesArcadiaAct 1 Scene 4 Summary

Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



Back in the present time, Hannah Jarvis is reading to Valentine Coverly from Thomasina Coverly's notes in which she echoes Fermat's comment in the margin of his last theorem, claiming she found a proof but not the space to write it. Thomasina claims she has created a "New Geometry of Irregular Forms" with a method for rendering all of nature numerically. Valentine explains Thomasina's work is an iterated algorithm and the method she is using is only about 20 years old. He claims she could not have known what she was doing because the only known math during her time was classical—the orderly math of Newton, not the unpredictable math of modern mathematics. To understand the end result of her algorithm would have been impossible in her time because it requires computers to complete tens of thousands of calculations that ultimately would account for the irregular forms in nature. "The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is."

Bernard Nightingale returns, excited about his discovery of a handwritten note in English Bards and Scottish Reviewers; he believes the book, and note, belonged to Lord Byron. Hannah Jarvis reveals she has found a letter indicating Mrs. Chater remarried in 1810, a fact implying she was probably a widow. In his excitement about the information he believes confirms his theory, Bernard tries to kiss Hannah, but she stops him. When Hannah points out he is leaping to conclusions he cannot prove yet, Bernard accuses her of lacking gut instincts. Valentine Coverly points out the game books prove Lord Byron was at Sidley Park in 1809.


Valentine Coverly's discussion of mathematics shows he is intelligent and knowledgeable but lacks Thomasina's spark of creative genius. He is more technician than artist, proficient at processing data and understanding technical matters but lacking in imagination. He cannot even begin to imagine a young girl living more than 200 years ago, with a classically based and incomplete education, could come up with contemporary mathematical theories and results deemed possible only through the use of computers, such as with chaos theory or entropy.

In addition, Bernard Nightingale's hubris blooms in this scene. His arrogant confidence in the correctness of his theory about Lord Byron's having killed Ezra Chater in a duel overrules academic, or rational, skepticism. He interprets every shred of evidence through the lens of his conclusion, refusing to entertain any suggestion he could be wrong, and of course he is, except about the widow marrying Lady Croom's brother.

There is a duel. Chater is dead. Byron fled! P.S. guess what?, the widow married her ladyship's brother!

This unfailing belief he is right leads him to treat others with contempt and verbal abuse. Hannah Jarvis, however, remains focused on her work, discouraging sexual advances, flattery, and all behavior other than professional collaboration, thus rejecting carnal knowledge and, unlike Cleopatra, refusing to become distracted from the task at hand.

The margin of Thomasina Coverly's notebook is symbolic of her lack of time to complete the vast number of calculations needed to demonstrate her new theory of geometry. The symbol of time appears in the form of Valentine Coverly's tortoise, Lightning, connecting past and present through the continuity of time and knowledge.

Again reflecting the decline of intellectual rigor in favor of self-aggrandizement, Bernard Nightingale interprets the newly found information to fit his own beliefs about what happened, even if it means making dangerous leaps in logic. When Hannah Jarvis points out his lack of proof, he angrily responds, "Proof? Proof? You'd have to be there, you silly bitch!" His emotional outburst epitomizes the breakdown of reason, the focus of her book about the hermit. Valentine points out that the game books (catalogs of animals hunted successfully), which Septimus had called the "calendar of slaughter," offer proof of Lord Byron's presence at the estate at the appropriate time.

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