“The Go Between”, written by LP Hartley Essay
“The Go Between”, written by LP Hartley, is a tragic period novel which takes place in Norfolk in the hot summer of 1900. The main character, Leo, now old, tells his story through a flashback, which takes most of the novel. I was particularly attracted to the feeling of relentlessness that is all pervasive in the novel as the story unfolds and develops. The theme of loss of innocence is explored and, through the various techniques used, Hartley ensnares us in the world of Brandham Hall.
The novel is made up of three parts: a prologue; the main part of the text, written as a flashback in the past tense and using first person narrative; and an epilogue which brings the reader up to date with life at Brandham Hall as the book closes. Leo, a damaged old man finds a diary which unlocks suppressed memories of the summer he spent in Norfolk, staying with the Maudsley family. While there, the naive young boy becomes infatuated with the daughter of the house, Marian, and, unwittingly, gets embroiled in the clandestine affair she is having with Ted Burgess, a tenant farmer on the estate.
This eventually leads to Leo’s loss of innocence and corruption, but also to the tragic end of Ted who shoots himself. The author uses many techniques to explore the theme of the loss of innocence of the main protagonist, Leo. He first highlights the naivety of the young boy by the use of symbolism. Leo is presented to us as fascinated by the Zodiac and all magic. He compares the people of B. H. with figures in the Zodiac: You insisted on thinking of them as angels, even if they were fallen angels. They belonged to your zodiac.
The word choice here highlights both the young boy’s naivety, that he should be so easily impressed by those at Brandham Hall, and his childish fascination with magic in the form of the zodiac. Hartley gives us the image of a very vulnerable young man as he begins his holiday in a world which is totally foreign to him. The colour green is another symbol used to emphasise the young boy’s immaturity. Hartley shows the gap between Leo’s understanding of life and that of those around him when he is bought a green suit.
The grown-ups gently tease him, but all Leo sees is a sense of adventure. He compares himself to Robin Hood: I saw myself roaming the greenwood with Maid Marian. This reference to the folk tale is entertaining for the reader and important on two counts: it shows Leo’s innocence, it also sows the seeds of his love for Marian and the sexual awakening that comes with it. Hartley has cleverly introduced this theme with the imagery of the legend of Robin Hood. We get the image of an innocent young boy looking for adventure. Marian is the focus of Leo’s attention.
This allows the author to show us the changes in his character, his gradual loss of innocence as a result of his relationship with her. The episode of the bathing party is one such occasion. Leo offers his suit to Marian so her dress does not get wet. This small act is perceived as far more significant by our hero: A labour of love it truly was, the first I had ever done. The metaphor used here leaves the reader in no doubt as to Leo’s feelings for Marian. The infatuation has been made very clear. We understand the beginning of a sexual awakening in Leo.
The meaning of the title becomes clear soon after this and we realise that Leo is being corrupted by his role as a messenger. Again, Hartley cleverly shows us the gap between Leo’s understanding and what is actually going on. He believes that the notes he is taking between the two lovers are to do with business, comments about the weather etc… His shock is made painfully evident when Hartley describes his reaction to reading one of the notes: Not Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, could have been more upset then I was.
The Biblical quote, emphasised by the use of inversion is very powerful at showing us the effect on the Leo. His childhood innocence is blown apart by the furtive look into the world of the adults around him. As a reader we sense a turning point in the life of the young boy. Desperate to extricate himself from a situation he cannot control, Leo tries to limit the damage he sees in the affair. His naivety and lack of understanding only serve to implicate himself deeper. He becomes a consummate liar and even accounts for this development in a very matter of fact way: I had heard so many lies and lying is infectious.
The comparison between lies and a disease shows how corrupted Leo has become as a result of his involvement in the love affair. No longer is the author pretending that his protagonist is naive and innocent. We feel sad that those around him abused, rather than protected him. It was evident from the beginning of the novel that a tragedy was to unfold. The climax of the story with Ted’s suicide and Leo’s breakdown reinforce our feelings of sorrow for a young man who was made to lose his innocence and paid such a high price for falling in love with his ‘Virgin of the Zodiac’.
Hartley highlights this dangerous goddess in different ways, by leading us to associate Marian with the “Atropa Belladonna”, beautiful, but deadly, but also when he has Leo confess: Perhaps she was the heat. The metaphor used in the last sentence makes us aware of the feelings Leo has for Marian and how much he has changed from the innocent little schoolboy, putting curses on those he did not like, as we discovered at the beginning of the novel.
We feared for him, yet are not entirely surprised by the shocking ending. We too mourn his lost innocence. LP Hartley has created a tense and bewitching narrative that shows us how young Leo came to be the damaged person of the prologue. His use of symbolism and imagery has helped highlight and enhance Leo’s loss of innocence, brought to a tragic end by the discovery of the affair and the death of Ted. The past was indeed very different, another world which cost Leo his youth and robbed him of much of his future.