He led them on and on, through a maze of back-kitchens, dairies, larders, and sculleries, that melted along covered ways into a farmhouse. (Actions and Reactions 13)In the last story, the narrator alludes once more to the image of the maze:
We played a sort of Blind Man’s Bluff along the darkest passages, in the unlighted drawing-room, and little dining-room, calling cheerily to each other after each exploration that here, and here, and here, the trouble had removed itself. (Actions and Reactions 296-7)These labyrinths are neither gothic nor threatening: on the contrary they are invitations to lose oneself and start a game of exploration. These two passages may be seen as an indirect formulation of the directions for use of the collection, as if the author was explaining to his readers how he intends them to read his stories. In “An Habitation Enforced”, the discovery of the house occurs quite unexpectedly and on a playful mode:
The footpath turned the shoulder of a slope, through a thicket of rank rhododendrons, and crossed what had once been a carriage drive, which ended in the shadow of two gigantic holm-oaks.The first impressions Sophie and her husband George get of the house are quite false and cliché: “colonial”, “Look at that view. It’s a framed Constable”. They compare their adventure to a touristy visit:“Don’t you like us exploring things together – better than Pompeii?”. In Out of Place, Ian Baucom mentions the ruined country house as one of the places which have been used by writers to portray Englishness:
‘A house!’ said Sophie, in a whisper. ‘A colonial house!’ (Actions and Reactions 8-9)
[These] places have served as apt metaphors for writers struggling to define what it means to be English, and (…) such metaphoric understandings have been literalized, sometimes subtly, sometimes crudely, so that these material places have been understood to literally shape the identities of the subjects inhabiting or passing through them. (Baucom 4)Sophie and George Chapin are influenced by what they expect from a ruined country house and fail to see its originality at first: not only is it English, but it is the emanation of the particular county and land it stands on.
We were silent again, and, in a few seconds it must have been, a live grief beyond words – not ghostly dread or horror, but aching, helpless grief – overwhelmed us, each, I felt, according to his or her nature, and held steady like the beam of a burning-glass. (Actions and Reactions 271-272)The pain tends to affect one room at a time, so the family gathers in one room only, fearing the depression might be in the next one. The house is haunted, invaded by two spirits who are striving to communicate and making the inhabitants depressed. When the house is finally healed thanks to the narrator who managed to connect the two spirits and put them to peace, the house ceases to be only seen as separate rooms:
They drew short, but afterwards deeper, breaths, like bathers entering chill water, separated one from the other, moved about the hall, tiptoed upstairs, raced down. (Actions and Reactions 296)The first reaction of the owners is to walk around the house and to make it whole again through their movements.
Before a bee can make wax she must fill herself with honey. Then she climbs to safe foothold and hangs, while other gorged bees hang on her in a cluster. There they wait in silence till the wax comes. The scales are either taken out of the maker’s pockets by the workers, or tinkle down on the workers while they wait. The workers chew them (they are useless unchewed) into the all-supporting, all-embracing Wax of the Hive. (Actions and Reactions 88)“The Mother Hive” is followed by a science fiction story with which it apparently bears no connection, “With the Night Mail”. Yet, between the anthropomorphic bees and the futuristic balloon trip over the Atlantic Ocean, the bridge is built thanks to a common theme and a structural similarity of the hive and the mail tower: both stories begin with the alighting of a flying object on a busy platform. The bees are bound to their hive as the dirigible balloons are to their mail tower. The hive is accessed through an alighting-board, and the bees come and go just as the dirigibles do. Among the fictional advertisements added at the end of “With the Night Mail”, a column is even entitled “The Bee-Line Bookshop”. Another link between the stories is that both present a vision of a strictly organised and hierarchic society, verging on the military. Each individual has a role to play in this machine-like society, and revolutionary attempts are annihilated.
By the middle decades of the century, with the success of the Darwinian theory and with advances in scientific physiology, it seemed to biologists that the modern machine, self-powered, often self-regulating, moving predictably by the complex interaction of springs and levers, provided an ideal theoretical model for organic life itself. In 1874 Thomas Henry Huxley, the acknowledged spokesman for science in England, in an essay entitled “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History,” could declare the principle of mechanism as the central hypothesis of modern biology.(Sussman 135)It is therefore not new to compare animals and even men to machines. The question is whether the collection can be seen as mechanically organised as well. The alternation of prose and poetry is strictly applied: each story is concluded by a poem developing one of its themes or characters. The poems can be seen as so many closures and boundaries between the stories, as limits intended for the reader to stop there or at least pause in his reading.
No, no. No crime. Only one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles. Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal. (Conan Doyle 151)In a situation of shock, the reaction to a movement is another movement in the opposite direction: such is the nature of the link between some stories in the collection. For instance, after the world of science fiction depicted in “With the Night Mail”, the incipit of the story “A Deal in Cotton” strongly indicates a remote time and place (“Long and long ago, when Devadatta was King of Benares…”), before finally reaching present day England in which the narration takes place (“lives now at a place in England called Weston-super-Mare”). The detour via oriental antiquity must be interpreted as an enhancement of the discrepancy between the two stories. Highlighting the gap is a paradoxical but efficient means of bridging it.
I am the land of their fathers,The land then is more explicitly shown as the agent of the enforcement mentioned in the title of the story. Being shorter and rhymed, the poems are also more likely to be remembered by the reader.
In me the virtue stays;
I will bring back my children
After certain days.
(Actions and Reactions 51)
Brothers and sisters, I bid you bewareIn the story, the friendship between man and dog is much valued, whereas what is highlighted in the poem is the fact that this attachment can lead to difficult emotional situations. Through this type of poem another voice speaks and gives a musical counterpoint to the story.
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
(Actions and Reactions 85)
A busy scene, indeed, he sees,The collection then ceases to be read linearly. The reader, surprised by the poem, will go back to the story which has indeed changed from his first interpretation. The poem initiates a to-and-fro movement within the unit made up of a story and a poem. The musical structure of variations on a theme is to be found in the collection at different levels: within the smaller units, but also more generally from story to story. The echoes are numerous and lead the reader to perceive the collection as a whole.
But not a sign or sound of bees.
Worms of the riper grave unhid
By any kindly coffin lid,
Obscene and shameless to the light,
Seethe in insatiate appetite.
(Actions and Reactions 107).