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Arcadia | Act 2, Scene 7 | Summary

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Summary

The scene opens to the modern Coverlys in 19th-century costumes. Sitting at the table, Chloë and Valentine Coverly read tabloid headlines about Bernard Nightingale's theory and discuss the meaning of a deterministic universe. Chloë theorizes the universe attempts to be deterministic but sex gets in the way because people become attracted to people they should not. Hannah Jarvis joins them. She and Valentine discuss the possibility of knowing something absolutely, whether historical knowledge or scientific. Hannah objects to the possibility of an afterlife because it would undercut the necessity for faith in knowledge if truth were revealed in heaven. She believes the act of seeking to know is more important than the knowledge itself. Valentine shows her the visual results of Thomasina Coverly's equations he has processed with a computer. He explains she should be famous for the work, but Hannah points out she died before her 17th birthday in a fire in her room in the house.

Hannah and Valentine freeze on stage as Thomasina and Augustus Coverly enter the same space. They appear about three years older than at their last appearance. They are fighting about something unseen until Septimus Hodge interrupts to start Thomasina's drawing lesson. Thomasina asks why he did not grade her rabbit equation and explains she did not have enough room to extend it as it eats its offspring. She is talking about the same equations Valentine Coverly enters into the computer nearly 200 years later. Hannah and Valentine unfreeze. As they resume talking, their dialogue overlaps with the conversation between Septimus and Thomasina; past and present blend during the transition back to Hannah and Valentine's discussion of Thomasina's theories. Valentine uses a metaphor about tea getting cold to explain entropy, or heat death, to Hannah. He points out it is inconceivable Thomasina or even Septimus could have developed the theory of entropy before the existence of calculators. Once again they freeze on stage while Septimus and Thomasina resume their conversation about Thomasina's future, foreshadowing her coming death.

The blending of past and present continues as 19th-century Lady Croom and 20th-century Chloë Coverly enter. Lady Croom is talking about the state of the garden and the marriage of the widowed Mrs. Chater to Captain Brice. Thomasina Coverly suddenly announces she has figured out that Newtonian physics does not have to result in determinism because his laws of motion do not take into account "the action of bodies in heat." Her mother responds that Mrs. Chater could undo the Newtonian system in a weekend. Lady Croom's conversation reveals the truth about several issues about which the contemporary researchers have been speculating: the Widow Chater married Captain Brice; it was indeed Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb in Fuseli's portrait; and Lady Croom asked that a hermit be added to the hermitage as part of the garden decoration. While they are talking, Thomasina draws a diagram of her heat exchange theory and gives it to Septimus, who studies the diagram and asks her to write an essay explaining it.

When the scene shifts back to the present, Bernard Nightingale is mortified by the evidence Hannah Jarvis has discovered in one of the garden books: Ezra Chater the poet was Ezra Chater the botanist killed in the Indies. Bernard tries to blame Hannah and Valentine for not stopping him from publishing without sufficient evidence, which is, of course, what they tried to do.

As the characters of the past and present share the same space, the intermingling of elements from the time periods increases. The sounds of the Coverlys' party become the background music for Septimus and Thomasina's waltz. Valentine and Septimus look simultaneously at copies of the same heat exchange diagram. Septimus and Thomasina share a passionate kiss as Bernard and Chloë are caught having sex in the hermitage. Hannah Jarvis and Gus Coverly dance next to Septimus and Thomasina. The timelines mix as they come to an end just as heat mixes until there is heat death in the universe. As Valentine states, "And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly—till there's no time left. That's what time means."

Analysis

The conversations of the two time periods intermingle. Even though the participants are unaware of the characters talking across time, their lines and responses mesh into one chaotic conversation, much like the scientific theories they have been discussing throughout the play. The very structure of the play is a lesson in entropy and chaos theory. As the play progresses, past and present mix until the final scene is a blend of events in both time periods happening at once. From the order and restraint of Scene 1, the play reaches the chaos of Scene 7 with its characters, themes, and symbols.

In this scene, Stoppard uses conversations to unveil the inner psychology of characters. When Chloë asks Valentine, "[D]o you think I'm the first person to think of this?" she echoes Thomasina asking the same question of Septimus earlier in the play; however, Chloë's insight is into the importance of the heart in human interactions, rather than a scientific theory. Stoppard is showing that Chloë may be as insightful and precocious as Thomasina, but she is wise beyond her years in a different way. Bernard, on the other hand, reveals his immaturity in his conversations. By trying to blame Hannah and Valentine for his choice to publish without sufficient evidence for his theories, Bernard is like a child who wants to shortcut his way to the fun and refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

Several characters are forced to face the consequences of their preconceived ideas in this scene. Valentine struggles with the realization that Thomasina's equations were many years ahead of her time. This knowledge challenges both his innate sexism that a girl could come up with this idea and also his concept that discoveries must follow a logical order. Hannah also learns to deal with her bias against instinctual knowledge when Bernard claims that the portrait on her book jacket was not Lord Byron. She cannot prove it, yet she is certain she is right, which is a departure from her usual way of thinking. Finally, Septimus abandons his view of Thomasina as a student once he examines her heat exchange diagram.

Thomasina's diagram of heat exchange triggers a change in the dynamic of the relationship between Septimus and Thomasina. Once he recognizes the genius of her ideas, he no longer sees her as the student he is tutoring but as an equal intellectual. This admiration leads to attraction that culminates in a kiss while they are dancing the waltz, which was considered a new, risqué dance at the time.

But within the descent into disorder, Stoppard has also built repeating patterns that are an homage to the iterative mathematics of chaos theory. The back and forth of past and present in the same location with similar details—such as the Coverly family, visiting scholars, and sexual entanglements—creates an iterative pattern within the play. There are distinct differences however, such as the opposing personalities of Augustus and Gus, which is a nod to the unexpected outcomes occurring from small initial changes as spelled out in chaos theory. The structure of the play also alludes to the second law of thermodynamics as the timelines start to overlap and mix just as heat does over time. This amalgam of theories applied to a literary structure creates an overarching effect that hints at the elusive theory of everything. It is at the same time exciting and exhausting to follow. In the end, the residents of Sidley Park, both past and present, waltz blindly, not knowing what their future holds.

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