Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Why does Hannah Jarvis object to the concept of the afterlife in Arcadia?

Hannah Jarvis objects to an afterlife in which people of different time periods meet and exchange information because she believes such a concept eliminates all reasons for humans to try to discover truth. If the answers to all of life's questions are to be revealed in the end when people are dead, then why bother struggling to find the answers in life? She believes knowledge is important by itself but the quest to gain it is even more important and is what makes life interesting. Hannah prefers to struggle to find answers, knowing her failures will be final when she dies.

What is the significance of the Coverly set in Arcadia?

The Coverly set is what Valentine Coverly calls the data from Thomasina Coverly's iterative equations. It produces an image he describes as, "In an ocean of ashes, islands of order. Patterns making themselves out of nothing." His description indicates Thomasina's equations reveal she had figured out the concept of chaos theory more than 200 years before it was thought to have been discovered. Valentine points out she should have been famous for such a discovery, but Hannah Jarvis's reminder she died in a fire explains why her work was never discovered. The Coverly set is proof of her genius, making her death even more tragic.

In Act 2, Scene 7 of Arcadia, what is the effect of the two time periods simultaneously occupying the same space?

The appearance of characters from the two time periods at the same time initially creates a cognitive dissonance. Then as the characters interact with the same props, but not with one another, such as Hannah drinking wine from Septimus's glass, the simultaneity creates a layered view of the history of the room. Use of the same props anchors both timelines of 1812 and the present to that place, creating a sense of permanence to Sidley Park. Only the people pass through as temporary occupants. The blending of the two time periods also represents the mixing and cooling off of the universe that leads to heat death as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics. The effect on the play is like a warning that the end may well be near.

In Act 2, Scene 7 of Arcadia, why does Valentine Coverly say, "You can't open a door till there's a house"?

Valentine Coverly is attempting to explain to Hannah Jarvis why it should have been impossible for the Sidley Park hermit to have figured out the universe is winding down to heat death. Valentine is explaining that, logically, no scientist at that point in history could have conceived it because other concepts needed to be in place before someone could arrive at the theory. Insisting that discoveries have to happen in logical, sequential order reveals Valentine is holding tightly to his rational perspective. He refuses to acknowledge that scientific leaps can be made out of sequence. When Hannah points out that such leaps are what constitute genius, Valentine responds they are only for lunatics and poets. His assertion demonstrates his lack of genius, but at the same time it demonstrates his struggle to grow as a character.

How does Stoppard imply Lady Croom is having a sexual relationship with Count Zelinsky in Act 2, Scene 7 of Arcadia?

Septimus Hodge and Thomasina Coverly, now almost 17 and more sexually aware than at 13, are discussing the waltz, considered provocative in 1812 because of the close contact between the dance partners. Thomasina is asking Septimus to teach her the dance, which she would like to do as well as her mother does, a remark that takes on a double meaning, given Lady Croom's sexual activities over the years. Septimus then comments they were all "waltzing like mice in London" a remark that alludes to much more than merely "dancing" because mice were known for their breeding habits. As they hear the waltz music from the next room, Thomasina informs Septimus her mother bought a book of waltzes for her and Count Zelinsky to play together, and Septimus gives Thomasina an essay on the waltz and heat propagation in a solid body. The off-stage music becomes more "excited," as Lady Croom and Count Zelinsky play a duet, and then stops abruptly. At the same time as the music stops, Richard Noakes's steam engine thumps rhythmically in the distance. When Lady Croom, flustered and surprised, enters the schoolroom shortly after, her activity in the music room seems quite clear, if not to Thomasina, then surely to Septimus.

In Arcadia, what is the significance of the title of Bernard Nightingale's article "Even in Arcadia—Sex, Literature, and Death at Sidley Park"?

The title of Bernard Nightingale's treatise on how he thinks Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater incorporates the symbolism of the play's title Arcadia. It alludes to the comparison of Sidley Park to Pan's garden in classical mythology and to the biblical Garden of Eden by using the quotation "Et in Arcadia ego." The expression is translated to mean "Even in Arcadia (Paradise) I am here." Arcadia means "paradise," and ego meaning "I" refers to the presence of death, which is always near, even in an ideal setting. It is also a reference to Nicolas Poussin's painting titled "Et in Arcadia Ego" which shows shepherds surrounding a tomb. Bernard's slick title also brings in sex and literature, which perhaps to a scholar like Bernard are as inevitable as death and certainly lead to conflict throughout the play. The possibility of death hangs over the characters of the past influencing their actions, and the interpretation of death affects the characters of the present. Bernard's work involves literature and an abundance of sex, as does his life.

In Act 2, Scene 7 of Arcadia, what does Hannah Jarvis's role in Bernard Nightingale's disgrace reveal about her opinion of Bernard?

Hannah Jarvis is the character who discovers evidence proving Bernard Nightingale's theory wrong. She wastes no time publishing this information and letting Bernard know what she has done. When telling him, she asks, "Would you rather it were one of your friends?" This question draws attention to the fact that she does not consider herself a friend to Bernard. She seems rather self-satisfied in his downfall, as evidenced by her sarcastic and dismissive remark, "It's a dirty job but somebody—"; indeed, she feels vindicated in her belief that his research was careless, his conclusions ill-conceived, and his work generally shoddy. She does, however, treat him with the courtesy expected between superficially cordial academics by warning him about her upcoming challenge.

What effect does Thomasina Coverly's diagram of heat exchange have on Septimus Hodge at the end of Arcadia?

Reading Thomasina Coverly's essay explanation of her diagram of heat exchange for Richard Noakes's steam engine, Septimus Hodge finally realizes the depth of her genius. Even though she does not have the mathematical knowledge to explain her theory fully, she clearly understands concepts that are revolutionary in her time. This recognition of her brilliance triggers an emotional response in Septimus and results in his kissing Thomasina with real feeling during their waltz lesson because he no longer sees her as a student but as an equal. The long-term effect of Thomasina's diagram on Septimus seems to be that Septimus spends the rest of his life trying to find the math to support Thomasina's theory after her death.

What do Bernard Nightingale's final words to Hannah Jarvis reveal about his character in Arcadia?

Bernard Nightingale tells Hannah Jarvis he looks forward to her book and hopes she finds her hermit. This parting statement shows he may not still hold a grudge against her for her role in publicly debunking his theory about Lord Byron killing Ezra Chater. But it might be just polite leave-taking; he may think it better not to quarrel with her or show weakness by her having embarrassed and degraded him. However, when she says she thinks she knows who the Sidley Park hermit is but does not have proof yet, Bernard tells her to publish anyway. His suggestion reveals he has not learned respect for the scientific method of gathering enough evidence to support a theory before publishing, or more likely, given his attitudes up to now and his questionable character, he may want to see Hannah humiliated. So although he may show some growth as a character, he still lacks a moral center.

What do the dancing couples represent in the final scene of Arcadia?

Thomasina Coverly and Septimus Hodge dance a waltz in 1812 while Hannah Jarvis and Gus Coverly dance in the present time. The couples' dancing represents the circles of life as people of different times move and respond to the same music. The dancing brings to the surface much of the tension between determinism and free will as the couples dance the steps of the waltz in time to the music, but at the same time they have the choice to dance or not. They do choose to dance, creating a swirling image of different times blending together as they weave around one another in the same room.

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