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Choice, contingency, and the Crack of Doom: Penelope Lively's Judgment Day.


Penelope Lively's fourth novel, Judgment Day (1981), is relatively short and deceptively simple--its settings, characters, and actions easy enough to comprehend, its philosophical underpinnings more complex and challenging. This complexity arises especially from its treatment of the indeterminate interactions between choice and contingency in their effects on characters' lives. I will discuss this relationship in general before returning to Judgment Day, its author's most sophisticated treatment of the subject, although it is a consistent concern in her fiction and nonfiction early and late. Published thirty years after Judgment Day, her memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites (2013) characterizes life as "a perverse mixture of choice and contingency" (26), "perverse" because of this yoking of two disjunctive factors that cannot conceptually or experientially be disentangled, while the narrator of her 1993 novel Cleopatra's Sister, suggesting the intricacy of this entanglement, states that "[c]hoice and contingency form a delicate partnership" and an "uneasy balance"--" a conjunction so capricious that it hardly bears contemplation" (4, 15). (1) Lively's novels, however, often in effect "contemplate" this relationship. It elicits narrators' comments, influences protagonists' thinking, and asserts itself in characters' experiences. Its workings are profound and puzzling. It is impossible to single out and comprehend the influence either of these factors exerts on the other or on an individual life, let alone how it operates on and within a group. On the one hand, many contingent events--occurrences random and thus unpredictable--influence people's lives and the conditions under which they make choices as well as the consequences of those choices. On the other hand, choices influence circumstances under which randomness can occur. Where does one end and the other begin?

How people feel about these matters also involves complexity. Belief in the supremacy of free will or choice can support the illusion, often subverted by experience, that individuals are fully in charge of their lives. Others feel the insecurity of being victims of random events or of being caught between choice and contingency, in some cases frightened by the unpredictable consequences of making significant decisions. Then again, insecure people can construe harmful random occurrences or decisions with poor outcomes as expressions of a negative fate that precludes both choice and contingency. (2) It is often hard for those invested in one or more of these perspectives to maintain a sense of a safe and capable identity that confidently can be projected into the future. While a number of Lively's novels dramatize, to a greater or lesser degree, the often-dispiriting effects of the "perverse mixture" she identifies, they also occasionally allow characters to escape from feeling themselves the victims of either contingency or fate: maybe with good choices and good luck one can secure a confident identity bolstered by the sometimes self-fulfilling force of optimism--people and their experiences vary.

Nevertheless, unproblematic or sustained optimism rarely characterizes Lively's chief protagonists. What interests her is how people confront the contingency-choice relationship as members of a wildly aspirational species freighted with consciousness. Thus she says, in a statement consistent with the main thrust of her novelistic practice, that "[i]f fiction is to help at all in the process of living, it is by illuminating its conflicts and its ambiguities" ("Bones" 15). These Judgment Day illuminates by means of a binary propensity entailing pairs of factors circumstantial and psychological: choice and contingency, each achieving a degree of clarity through contrast with determinism or necessity, but also isolation/connection and chaos/order as conditions--partially shaped by choice and contingency--that everyone experiences. In Lively's schema these three sets of interacting factors constitute the "conflicts and... ambiguities" of life and suggest what most of us feel at times: that it is not very easy being a human being. Lively says she has "never come to terms with life, and... wouldn't want anybody else to do so" ("Bones" 15).

In Judgment Day, however, there arises from the confusion of human existence an appeal for what the novel advances as the only reasonable response: humaneness in feeling, thought, and action. (3) In this vein Mary Hurly Moran understands the novel as an exercise in secular humanism exploring "how we can live moral, meaningful lives in a world without religious imperatives" (65). (4) Like Lively's other novels, Judgment Day intimates that being humane is all the more important for members of our overly sensitive species existing for a short while in an uncaring universe and caught in a welter of external and mental conflictive forces. Lively actualizes this awareness through attunement to the difficulties and feelings of the novel's protagonists, a sensitivity most apparent in understated moments when, standing out in contrast to habitual confusions and avoidances, humane gestures lessen self-involvement and increase self-satisfaction. In turn, they point toward loving relationships. According to the recently released, widely publicized findings of the seventy-five-year Harvard Grant Study, these relationships are, as many have suspected, foundational to happiness (see Valliant). (5) It seems almost too simple, and in a sense it is, since there are so many obstructions to the building of that foundation.

Neither an idealist nor a sentimentalist, Lively is fully aware of these obstacles. The concept of a Judgment Day, which along with other Christian elements the novel translates from religious to secular contexts, can be understood as any day when contingency manifests with bad consequences, when bad choices lead to unhappy outcomes, or when the idea of negative fate and thus hopelessness prevail. But it might also be the day or moment when people choose--the novel never precludes free will--to treat not only others but themselves with the consideration that human reality warrants. The main characters in Judgment Day do not fully secure that degree of moral clarity, but by "illuminating... [the] conflicts and... ambiguities" of being human, and by showing humaneness as the best response to them, it potentially offers "help... in the process of living." (6) Illumination, however, must emerge from the murkiness of what Penelope Fitzgerald aptly identifies as Lively's "everyday world of random fatality" (46).


Part III of this essay will elaborate on the novel's deployment of the dualisms presented above, while this section characterizes the lives that become entangled in them. Lively's fiction involves mostly ordinary people and situations. With several exceptions, including her Booker-prize-winning novel Moon Tiger (1987), Lively's twenty-one adult novels and story collections--she has also published thirty-one children's books--concern relatively commonplace experiences of intelligent, well-educated, but mostly unexceptional protagonists in everyday settings and circumstances. Her style is understated, with drama and personal crises muted but all the more powerful for being allowed to speak for themselves, either through minimal but sharply observed narrative and descriptive details or through the mental responses of thoughtful, introspective protagonists. Revelation tends to be suppressed or to unfold gradually. (7) A New York Times review ascribes to Lively "the gift of being able to render matters of great import with a breath, a barely audible sigh, a touch" (Bausch). Judgment Day bears these hallmarks of Lively's fiction.

Most of Judgment Day consists of back and forth forays into the thoughts, perceptions, and memories of multiple characters and into the impressionism and epistemic relativism this approach fosters. Third-person narration often merges with free indirect discourse that in turn flows into stream-of-consciousness. Asterisks generally separate presentations of different characters' perspectives, but sometimes within units thus demarcated the mental operations of one character shift to those of another. These intermixed subjectivities, which stress both the separation and interconnectedness of human lives, belong to a small cast of characters living modest lives in the English village of Laddenham, a place "long detached from its origins" introduced by the novel's first sentence: "First of all, the place." The village is in the process of being absorbed by the modern world, especially in the form of the "expanding... London overspill" of Spelbury, a larger town "known for light engineering" (1). Apart from the village itself, the main characters are Clare Paling, an intelligent, well-educated young mother, recently moved to town, with school-age kids and time on her hands; George Radwell, the painfully self-conscious and ineffectual vicar of the local church; Sydney Porter, a widower, retired accountant, and current sexton at the church; and Martin Bryan, the lonely and anxious only child of inattentive parents who continually fight. Secondary characters, treated mostly in the third-person, interact with the four protagonists who all in one way or another are troubled, though perhaps not much more so than most people, as they lead lives in need of more sustaining relationships with the people, places, and circumstances depicted in the novel.

Clare Paling projects a confident, no-nonsense personality, her utterances brief and sometimes sardonic whether talking to strangers or to her family, whom she loves despite her vocal edge and emotional restraint. Her apparent confidence and reserve in fact mask insecurity: she sees the world as an untrustworthy place offering no assurance of safety for her children. Clare's maternal concerns, and family life generally, functional or dysfunctional--with community as a caring family an implicit ideal--intermix with other themes of the novel (see n.7). Her children in school and her husband often off the scene with work and travel, she has time to assess her new community while initially holding herself aloof. But when there arises an effort to raise money for restoration of the medieval village church, Clare is drawn into the cause and then suggests a pageant restaging what she has learned are the two most significant historical events connected with the church: during the Civil War Cromwellian forces executed men in the churchyard, and later in the century farm laborers demanding higher pay vandalized the church, resulting in their being taken from their families and transported abroad (59-60). Although these events strike some as out of sync with church activities, Clare's idea of a historical pageant is accepted and citizens pitch in with the planning of the event, over which the highly competent Clare eventually takes charge; this allows her to blunt ridicule of the incompetent George Radwell. She gradually develops sympathy for this unmarried, lonely vicar whom initially she had found repulsive.

George's problems involve the combination of his unprepossessing appearance with timidity, social awkwardness, sexual frustration, and lack of faith in his vocation and even in Christianity itself. When nervous he cannot repress his odd snort of a laugh. He first meets Clare when she visits his church to examine its medieval trappings including a wall painting of the Last Judgment. In this and other meetings he finds himself physically attracted to her, a circumstance that leads to a series of funny-sad fantasies in which he imagines practicing sexual prowess upon a compliant Clare but is never able to bring matters to a successful conclusion; one of his fantasies is ruined by the imagined intrusion of the squeaky spring on his real-life beat-up couch (64). In his mind he sometimes composes scenes of fictive social successes he can send his mother, who never fails to express her intense disappointment in him.

His sadness is matched by the barely submerged unhappiness of Sydney Porter and of Martin Bryan. Long ago Sydney had lost his wife and daughter to a bomb during a German air raid on London. Afterwards he had moved to Leddenham and upon retirement taken up a life of inflexible routines notable in his care of the church, his housekeeping, and his meticulous gardening. All must be accomplished just so, an attempt to hold at bay his sorrow and his fear of a world that in a moment can extinguish happiness and all one had counted upon. "For the rest of his life all he wanted was order" (82)--though his order disguises deep emotional disorder. He is not a Christian, but in the church's tradition and ritual he finds assurance of an "order... that... survived the chaos of everything else" (81). Nevertheless he feels trapped by fate, "the inevitability of things" (150). In his relations with others Sydney is taciturn and guarded. Next door are Mr. and Mrs. Bryan, who live slovenly physical and moral lives--their degenerating garden signifying as much--while their solitary son Martin skulks about the village engaged in imagined compensatory adventures and suffering stomach aches when his parents are particularly hostile to one other. After his father leaves for another woman, Martin's mother decides to travel abroad and bullies the reluctant Sydney, whom she hardly knows, into taking care of her son for a while. Gradually he and Martin become close, passing time together in various activities, their loneliness assuaged. With the opening of Sydney's heart comes openness to new ways of living and a return to involvement in and caring for the lives of others. In the novel, for a while, hopefulness prevails over those forces that oppose it.


The interaction of choice and contingency join the life conditions of connection and isolation, order and chaos in orienting Judgment Day plot-wise and thematically. They do so around two contrary trends or tendencies, one conceived positively and the other negatively in terms of their impact on human happiness. In this dynamic the first member of each of the three pairs--choice, connection, and order--for a while optimistically asserts itself against the second but ultimately is superseded as the latter develops from background presence to grim predominance. None of these counter movements ever fully suppresses the others, however, for in the protagonists' lives they all are intertwined, as they are in everyone's. The fourteenth-century wall painting in Leddenham's church roughly incorporates these two trajectories I have sketched while foreshadowing, like the novel's title, the eventual preeminence, though not complete triumph, of isolation, chaos, and contingency enacted as negative factors in individual and communal life. (8)

Near the beginning of Judgment Day Clare enters the village church and examines, along with its other medieval decorations, its "Doom" painting--its depiction of the Last Judgment. Painted on church walls largely in accordance with generic conventions, Dooms were meant to impress upon worshipers the awards or punishments awaiting them as expressions of God's power and justice. Jesus is shown on high presiding over the Last Judgment, sometimes indicating up with one hand and down with the other, while angels to his right direct the saved upward toward Heaven and devils or demons to his left encourage the damned in their descent into Hell. St. Michael sometimes appears with scales for weighing souls. The agnostic Clare finds Leddenham's Doom to be in poor repair and obscure; its iconography, even when discernable, without much significance for an unbeliever. Though the painting
is the church's glory and surprise, [it] puzzles... congregations
today. Those queerly bundled figures on one side, their form barely
discernable (the plasterwork has not been restored).... Those red
monkeyish things with--toasting forks, could it be? Angels to the left,
sinister and spectral figures to the right; a rising and falling....
(2) (9)

The painting suggests, as part of a tension interwoven throughout human experience, the interplay of connection and isolation, order and chaos, choice and contingency. Doom paintings characteristically depict an orderly ascent to Heaven of the godly, whose faces sometimes wear beatific expressions, and disorder in the form of demon-beset sinners herded downward into what sometimes is depicted as a Hell of chaotic torturing and suffering. (10) While the blessed now are destined for a community of angels intimately linked to God and Jesus, the damned will be tortured, eternally isolated from others and, in what some theologians consider the greatest torment of all, eternally separated from God and hope of salvation. Saved and damned in a Doom face the consequences of choices made between good and evil--Roman Catholicism embraces free will as sanctioned by Augustine, Aquinas, and others--but for anyone who does not believe in God or lacks faith in a divine plan, this manifestation of Last Judgment is, in its suddenness and unpredictability, likely to appear akin to contingency, a virtually random event superseding choice. It might also seem inexplicable, based as it is upon the vague concept of bodies that can rejoin souls and the dubious notion that there exists an absolute and calculable distinction between good and evil conceived as absolutes.

For many people today the implications of a Doom are as faded as the Leddenham painting, which for Clare is primarily of historical interest, but any emotional response to a Doom is likely to be negative in accordance with the meaning of "doom." Dating back to at least the ninth century, the word in its original Anglo-Saxon form meant a judgment or decree. But apparently because it more specifically could signify a condemnation or sentencing, and more so because it became attached to the fearfulness of the Judgment Day--also known as the "Crack of Doom" because it is heralded by the sound or "crack" of trumpets in the Book of Revelations--"doom" as a noun eventually took on today's meaning: destruction, total and final. The word in this sense does not necessarily imply fate, unlike "doom" employed as a verb or adjective, as when something "dooms" someone or when he or she is said to be "doomed."

But in the novel doom indeed means dark fate, paradoxically compounded of deleterious random events, consistent with what in a Doom probably stands out for most observers: the eye-catching drama of sinners and demons in which isolation and chaos prevail as the condemned face their fates. From early on the threat of doom shadows the lives of Judgment Day's protagonists, but for a while it is more latent than not as, with the negative potential of randomness suppressed, they move toward connectedness and order, though never with the assurance of those ascending to Heaven in Laddenham's church painting. In Lively's novels revelation generally unfolds gradually with drama thereby defused (see n.7). Judgment Day largely adheres to this pattern in so far as the novel's climactic revelations, like those of the biblical Judgment Day, are proleptically present from the first, implicit in the book's title and descriptions of the Doom painting where the fate of losers predominates dramatically.

The positive trending of isolation toward connectedness, however, is what stands out in the early phases of the novel, with isolation apparent in the description of the village as a collection of architectural styles with little visual or historical connection to one another. Furthermore, the village is disconnected from the past, "detached from its origins." Once the dominant, integral center of the village, the church is now separated from the village by its reduced physical circumstances--it is diminished by a car park on one side and an Amoco garage on the other (2). Lives also are disconnected. Sydney Porter lives in emotional isolation; because of the trauma of losing his wife and daughter, he wishes, in order to avoid the risk of further loss, "not to get involved" with others (10). His next-door neighbor, Martin Bryan--whom "in ten years... he had barely exchanged a dozen words with" (125)--keeps to himself, lonely and insecure because of his parents' lack of care for him and their hostility toward each other. George Radwell is isolated through intense self-doubt. And Clare Paling, new to the village, is aware she has "no friends" (15), a situation that her brusque personality is not calculated to readily overcome. Gradually, however, especially through the fimdraising campaign for church restoration but also through Sydney's initially reluctant caretaking of Martin, these lives become interrelated in shared purpose and, increasingly, shared sympathy. Furthermore, the pageant facilitates a sense of a collective history, one about which citizens had previously known very little, that temporarily offsets the disconnection from the past fostered by modernity with its focus on the present and near future. This positive development, Moran argues, causes the novel to resemble "a traditional morality play" in which "it is the church that brings the villagers together and provides transcendence" (69).

A reciprocal thematic trajectory is from disorder toward order. In its mix of architectural styles from various periods the village consists of a "chronological confusion" (2), but because of the pageant the church recaptures something of its past significance in organizing village life. The planning of the pageant moves toward order, though it is not always smooth; initially there is doubt about the appropriateness, for a church function, of reproducing historical events involving destruction and violent death--the violence of Jesus's death is overlooked--and rehearsals are sometimes and comically inept. Clare in particular pulls things together when chaos threatens, and the disparate, sometimes combative personalities and agendas are brought to relative order. In a parallel movement, Sydney abandons his rigidly controlled life in favor of more flexible and humane expression of order founded upon new routines he establishes with Martin. The boy in turn exchanges his solitary wanderings for a stability entirely lacking in the tumultuous life he has shared with his unstable parents. When Clare, who early in the novel has been repulsed by George, begins to show him consideration, there emerges the possibility of escape from his isolation and from the imaginative and emotional chaos of his inner life that had often left him distracted and embarrassingly inattentive to the world around him. Overall, throughout most of its length, the narrative seems to develop progressively as well as teleologically, moving toward the church pageant and the church itself as resistance to modern alienation, endorsement of community and societal order, and hopefulness about the future.

Characters' choices, in contradistinction to negative random events, also contribute to the movement toward more satisfying lives. Choice and optimism for a while appear ascendant because characters make what appear to be constructive decisions--some are gradually arrived at rather than made on the spot--with regard to fostering the pageant, to Martin and Sydney's mutual acceptance, to Clare's inclusion of Martin in her children's activities, to her and Sydney's growing acceptance of one another, and to Clare's change of mind about George. But the threat of negative contingency that has haunted Judgment Day from the first as an increasingly assertive opponent of affirmative choice--of decisions made favoring connectedness and order--gradually takes on, especially in light of foreshadowing that begins with the title, the quality of dark fate. It is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's novels in which chance events aggregate into doom for one or more main characters, their choices merely conducing to that end. Lively's novels are sometimes associated with modernism or even postmodernism. But the fatalistic element in Judgment Day, paradoxically encompassing chance, also relates the novel to literary naturalism, where fate or chance (or both) control characters' lives.

Lively's protagonists make choices in favor of mutuality and common good and bringing people together, but contingency--the unpredictable and uncontrollable randomness of things in a universe lacking inherent meaning--threatens disaster. None of the main characters is ever free from fear of such a consummation. Sudden loud noises startle Sydney because of his experiences in World War II and their association with the bomb strike, random in hitting his rather than another's house, that destroyed his family. Because of shutting down emotionally and intellectually, Sydney "long since ceased to take much interest in questions of choice or blind accident [and] simply moved through his days, doing what had to be done" (14). But fear is always there; today he would be diagnosed with PTSD. Martin, an innocent trying to hold onto his faith that love and caring are the true conditions of the world, continually fears the blasting apart of his already insecure world by a parental breakup that might be precipitated at any time: "Nowhere was safe, not even his home," he thinks (66). A secondary character, Mrs. Tanner, a comic agoraphobic who aggressively imposes herself upon the timid George as his thoroughly unwanted housekeeper, enjoys articulating the risks of sudden disaster posed by the outside world.

Clare is the character who gives thought to the relationship of contingency to disaster. When her husband says that driving recklessly means "Tempting Providence," she replies irritably, "providence doesn't need tempting" (73). Here, consistent with the novel's shifting from religious to secular terms, the existential threat implicit in an uncaring universe replaces a threatening God. She thinks, once belief in God is subtracted from the equation, that she can look at the "wall painting of Judgment Day with the understanding and apprehension of a fourteenth-century peasant." She claims that in the modern world "hell is not a separate place, but a part of things" (72, 89). Why she feels this way is not entirely unclear--she relates it to latent guilt instilled in her by a religion she no longer accepts (72-73)--but it colors her view of history as encapsulated in the riots and deaths the church pageant seeks to memorialize. "History is ghastly," she pronounces, "[n]othing but misery and war and brutality" (59). Her fears focus especially on the safety of her son and daughter, and her anxieties are exacerbated by her sense of how far this world differs from the ideal one she holds in mind and sometimes momentarily experiences--"moments of absolute, of untouchable felicity" (44)--in the beauty of nature and her children. In the ideal world there exists order and predictability. But random destructiveness can strike at any time, revealing another world entirely: "Either you waited for the coin to be flipped at any moment, or you were barely aware of the reverse side. There are two worlds: the real world, in which we live, and pretend we don't, and the world in which bed for little girls is always at seven and cottage pie is forever cooking nicely in the oven" (43). Maybe some people live primarily in that bright world (44), but Clare knows she cannot linger there for long. Despite her apprehensions she is a careless driver, as if she wants to numb her fears through the excitement of speed. Clare also suffers from a sort of survivor's guilt because of her awareness that her life, at least so far, has not been invaded by the disasters that have devastated others. Newspapers are an ordeal for her.

In George Radwell's life the operation of randomness is in some ways even more problematic. He "had entered the Church because of a typing mistake." At his school "Technological" had mistakenly been recorded as "Theological" for the boy's career preference, and then misguided guidance counseling planted the idea of priesthood as an appropriate career despite his lack of religious conviction and requisite skills (7-8). The appearance of this vocational path relieved him of having to think seriously about his future or much of anything else. Therefore, "not being a thoughtful man, he had never dwelt on the slippery nature of choice in human affairs; he felt... he had chosen to go into the Church" (14). But now, as vicar, George feels himself victimized by a lack of choice, entrapped in an inappropriate career and by dysfunctional habits of mind. His fear is not that things will change but that they will not--that he will remain lonely and ineffectual. Contingency, though here it has led to fatalism, need not be negative in its effects; George might benefit from some sudden and unpredicted intervention in his life. Clare, brought into George's world because of her husband's career and her interest in history and architecture, potentially offers such an influence, directing him toward desirable outcomes and bolstering his self-confidence. But Judgment Day looms, which for him means the moment he fully accepts a world that holds for him no possibility of meaningful change.

Harbingers of doom occur randomly in the lives of the villagers. One of these involves a squadron of fighter jets known as the Red Devils; stationed at a local air force base, they perform synchronized maneuvers at air shows and other events. From time to time they roar over the village looking like "scarlet... dart[s]" (34). Upon one such occasion the novel accesses in turn the consciousnesses and varied reactions of characters who had seen or heard them (34-37)--a device suggested perhaps by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) where people are connected via their separate observations of a skywriting airplane. Initially the streaking planes seem exciting or neutral or annoying, depending on who sees or hears them, but when one of them crashes at a nearby air show their significance changes to that of random disaster. Several members of the audience are killed, but as Mrs. Tanner, typically cheery about others' misfortunes, observes, the crash might easily have killed more people had it landed in a different spot; this is much like the bomb that killed Sydney's wife and daughter. With relish she goes into details gleaned at second hand, telling of "the most terrible screaming... and debris flying in all directions." Picking up on the unpredictability and unlikelihood of what has occurred, she reports that "one woman got hit nearly five hundred yards away, a chunk of metal split her arm from the shoulder to the elbow." With the complacency we often feel about disasters not directly concerning us, she concludes that it is a "good thing 1 wasn't there, with my nerves" (139).

Clare would have been there had it not been for her own accident. She is on her way, driving her children and also Martin, now taken into her orbit, when an oncoming truck rounding a curve suddenly appears in front of her. Swerving to avoid it, she wrecks her car. She and the children are unharmed, but it easily might have been otherwise; also, they might have been victims at the air show had their wreck not occurred. So the accident, a matter of contingency, can be understood as bad luck or good, since "luck" is an expression of randomness that seems to affect us in some decidedly good or bad way. Consequently luck, being a matter of interpretation, can reverse polarities, bad luck becoming good or vice versa. The wreck might have been a good thing, but for Clare it represents further workings of dark contingency, of negative fate. Before the wreck Clare has the children singing, "Ten green bottles, hanging on the wall... if one green bottle should accidently fall, there'd be nine green bottles..." (134). But what are the odds that each of the ten bottles would in turn accidentally fall? Repeated accidents take on the appearance of fate.

The presence of Martin Bryan also suggests negative fate. His father had promised to take him to the air show, but when the time comes Mr. Bryan is off elsewhere, engaged in his extramarital affair. So Sydney, who doesn't drive--possibly because of the insecurity he feels due to his wife and daughter's deaths from the bomb strike and the constrained life he has chosen for himself--asks Clare to include Martin in the outing. Her doing so results from a string of contingencies that, late in the novel, will contribute to Martin's death when he is run over on his new bicycle, an accident foreshadowed by the earlier one involving the plane. In reality, being unpredictable, the contingency of events can be known only in retrospect. In literary representation, however, such is not the case. Judgment Day manages to suggest unpredictability while promoting a sense of inevitability implicit in its title and in the church's Doom; in the novel, both contingency and choice are construed as negative fate. (11)

Another expression of contingency and disaster involves the anonymous motorcycle gang that at night occasionally roars through the village and, after at first being merely a nuisance, engages in increasingly destructive acts of vandalism. The morning after one of these incursions Clare finds a used condom thrown into her car. What was the point? Her practical husband merely tells her she had better keep the car locked. On another occasion the marauders tear up the village green and break one of Sydney's windows, causing him to feel again the war he has tried to forget. These invasions of hostile external forces must to some degree be determined, but for the residents of Laddenham they seem entirely random, unpredictable, and impersonal in their unknown motivation. After the bikers' culminating act of destruction, their vandalizing of the church, George thinks, "They had no faces, these people; what they had done was as elemental and impersonal as weather--a hurricane, a flood" (195).

The police say the bikers probably come from the adjacent city of Spelbury, the urban sprawl focused on "light electronics" that seems destined to devour Laddenham (159, 188). Like the bikers and the plane crash, Spelbury suggests modernity's assault upon traditional village life and the sense of security that justifies unlocked doors. But security is relative. Again, for the novel's main characters the world has never seemed safe. And village history does not really warrant complacency; the community-building pageant after all is based on sixteenth-century incidents of death and destruction. For people convinced that random outrages only afflict others, not their own secure lives, the crash represents only a slight and temporary check upon complacency. "[Y]ou don't expect things like that on our own doorstep, do you?" muses one of Clare's neighbors. "It made me feel quite funny for a minute," she says before moving on to other concerns (141). For Clare and others, however, doom is never far away.

Although it appears or is referred to only sporadically, the Doom painting throughout the novel evokes insecurity that disaster will ultimately justify, insecurity no longer related to Christian doctrine. Recalling the chaotic devastation of wartime experience, with "people hustled hither and thither, blown by terrible mindless winds, helpless, hapless," Sydney suddenly imagines "the wall painting in the church and the figures bundled away by red devils..." (80). Later on, only recently able to speak of the war, first to Clare and then to Martin, Sydney suddenly visualizes the painting's "details more sharply than ever before" and experiences again the sound of bullets and bombs as fear of loss grows alongside his increasing care for others and himself (169-70). After the anonymous motorcycle gang tears up the church and Martin is killed in a traffic accident, the shaken George, bemusedly searching for where he keeps sugar, suddenly seems to see "part of the wall painting in the church. Not sugar" (200). For the novel the opposite of sugar is an insecure world doomed to random destruction, the Crack of Doom.


Clare does not believe in God, feeling that if He did exist He would be responsible for many horrors, but she accepts Christian ethics. George, attempting to defend the Christianity in which he lacks faith, several times insecurely draws Clare into conversations that, more and more as she sees his unhappiness and need for consideration, stimulate her to articulate her own beliefs and doubts. She tells him, "I believe that people are capable of great good and great evil, and ought to be good. And I believe that the capacity for love is the greatest we have. Every kind of love, kindness or charity or tolerance or whatever you care to call it" (148). But she often considers how far short she falls of this humaneness, recognizing her judgmental and sometimes cold responses to people. With George, however, she increasingly exercises her capacity for "kindness," "charity," and "tolerance"--that is, willingness to take shared humanity as reason enough to treat others well. The ethical basis of Judgment Day is as elementary as that. The novel pits this simple notion of morality against the complexity of situational and psychological forces arrayed against it. These drive a narrative trajectory of increased destructiveness and undermine the ability of "whatever you care to call it"--something felt and perhaps limited by being named as opposed to simply being acted upon--to overcome isolation and disorder both physical and psychological.

Arbitrariness felt as negative fate reaches its climax on Judgment Day--the late-night ransacking of the church and, later that day, the death of Martin. Not only are the church's sacred furnishings and architectural decorations smashed, torn, or defaced, but also the costumes and props for the pageant. Shortly before the vandalism, however, it seemed the building had taken on a new spirit, one suggesting the bright other world of human longing that Clare in particular both rejects and cannot forget, her sense of what ought to be. The church seemed to have gained stature, no longer dominated by its shoddy surroundings. Temporarily floodlit in advance of the pageant, the church "was suspended golden in the night, a faery creation not of stone but the very stuff of dreams, detached from time and place, fabulous" (184). The children recognize this first, a fleeting evocation of innocence and possibility about to be subverted by a grownup world that contains mindless destruction. Clare sees a building "bathed in fiery light, lacking only a Blakean God to point an awful finger at them all." (12)

The destruction of the church interior, foreshadowed in various ways including its fourteenth-century vandalizing, is presented as an expression of fate but also as an act of randomness along the lines of natural disaster. It is much the same with Martin's death--though here human agency is stressed more--a consequence of decisions made and not made but with choice once again entangled with randomness. Lively carefully deploys decisions and contingencies leading to his death. The chief element is Martin's new bicycle, which Clare's son, cataloging its wonderful features, pronounces "the most fantastic bike" (161)--something like the transfigured church. (13) Initially the bicycle seems good as an expression of an absent father's care for his son, and Martin's sharing it with Clare's son and daughter also seems positive by tying the once lonely boy more closely to Clare's children. They take turns riding round and round the village green, itself gesturing to a more innocent time. But the gift apparently only comes to Martin as guilty recompense for his father's not fulfilling his promise to take Martin to the air show or more generally for abandoning his family. The gift occurs because Martin's father had happened to meet someone he prefers to his wife. George's housekeeper, Mrs. Tanner, also plays a major role. George abhors her but, being as he is, apparently never considers firing her. Had he done so, or if the bicycle had not been given, things would have been different. On the day following the church attack Mrs. Tanner leaves the parsonage and crosses the street--her leaving at that moment influenced by interactions with George resulting from the vandalism--causing a truck to pause for her and an impatient motorcyclist behind it to swerve around the truck and hit Martin on his bike. These factors are minute in comparison to the incalculable choices and random events that conspire, with many entangled lines of cause and effect, to bring about this or any event in human affairs; however, the novel effectively intimates this complexity through its selection of variables. These are not free from determinism, as is indicated by the bike's color, which is red like the devils in the Doom and the squadron of fighter planes--part of the red line of threat and unpredictable destruction threaded through the novel and its enactments of indeterminacy and unpredictability.

Inability to know the future is stressed by Clare's initially not knowing which of the children has been hit as she runs out into the street. George hears her "saying something: not to him, not to anyone, just to the air.... She was saying, 'No, no, no. Please God no. Please, please no'" (197). This is an ironic comment, even if her cry is nothing more than terrified rhetoric: in moments of need even a skeptic is more likely to imagine a God responsive to human helplessness than a "Blakean God" who has pointed an "awful finger." Certainly it is a confirmation of Clare's fears. George, less directly involved in the tragedy and not really concerned with God one way or another, is pushed further into the stunned incomprehension that the vandalism had already induced in him. Sydney, having lost what had restored him to love and life, retreats once more, and probably deeper than ever, into a protective shell of unfeeling; after woodenly rejecting Clare's attempt to comfort and help him somehow, he shuts his door on her, and that is the last we see of him.


There is the dark narrative trend of random destruction, isolation, and chaos. There is the positive one of choice, community, and order linked together by "love, kindness or charity or tolerance or whatever you care to call it"--by that quality, which I have labeled humaneness, that makes life worth living. For a moment darkness seems to prevail, but at the end of the novel the two trajectories become so entangled, their relationship so ambiguous, that their respective influences on each other are rendered more indeterminate than ever. Martin is dead, the church violated, and the surviving protagonists stricken. The final pages of the novel, however, evincing the ambiguity that generally culminates in Lively's novels, also gesture toward humaneness and its ability, however fragile or tentative, to survive days of judgment. That possibility is not precluded, and good things might happen since the future is, as the novel has it, both indeterminate and determined. Human reality is muddled. A positive note is sounded, counter to the crack of doom, as people pull together, the sense of community greater than ever, in cleaning up the church. Disasters can have that effect, with individuals welcoming the opportunity to work together in a meaningful way that counteracts with hopefulness the disengagement and anonymity that modernity all too often promotes. George thinks "that never before had he known the church so filled with good will" and "offers of help come from all over" (190, 193). Clare and George also are brought together in trying to deal with the aftermath of the church's vandalizing, which the Doom painting somehow has escaped--perhaps merely by chance.

The conclusion of Judgment Day focuses on George and Clare. After having lost his faith ten years earlier George had "decided, if decision it could be called, that... he might as well go on as he had" (178). But the planning of the pageant had exposed his incompetence and awkwardness more than ever, and even prior to the novel's climactic doom he had been confronted by an overwhelming sense of his own. When he looks in a mirror after one more fiasco, he sees a travesty of what he wished he were staring back at him; afterwards he notices a dead fly in a cobweb. In his despair he calls upon God to send him a woman like Clare (178-79), an appeal to be echoed in Clare's begging God to spare her child. Following the violation of the church George sees pity for him in her eyes (190), but this merely confirms the mirror image of himself as someone pitiable. As a result he loses his sexual desire for her, his hope for any positive outcome in his life apparently deadened for good. The bicycle accident merely exacerbates this response. For example, he sees the expression on Clare's face before she knows the victim's identity (201), and what he perceives to be love that nobody will ever feel for him.

The effect of events on Clare is different. It reasserts the survivor's guilt that had long been a part of her makeup. And yet the sense of her own fortunateness, now enhanced because a child of hers has escaped death, makes her more aware of George's devastation. "It came to her as extraordinary that they had moved together, she and this man, through the previous day; like being trapped with a stranger in a lift. But he was not, now, a stranger. We are in the world with other people.... I don't dislike George Radwell any more; now why is that?" (203). Suffering, it seems, has sensitized her to another's suffering. After her attempt to help Sydney has been spurned, she tries to comfort George in his stunned befuddlement. This sense of fellow feeling, of nobody being a stranger because everyone shares in this vexed business of life, is akin to the communal sympathy evidenced in cleaning up the church. George thinks that he had never spoken to Martin, and "for some reason this troubled him" (201)--troubled him, we can assume, because a newfound sensitivity to the lives of others makes him aware of his former lack of sympathy.

Clare takes a dish she has prepared to the parsonage for her and George to eat together. They talk, and George again mentally makes up a letter to his mother while Clare is out of the room; there are two versions, the first typically distorting reality through imagined social successes but immediately rejected in favor of a second, this one succinct and truthful: "Dear Mother, Last night I saw a child dying and now I can think of nothing else. I have sat in Mrs. Paling's house which I have many times visited in the imagination, and the experience meant nothing at all" (204). Clare attempts to lead him into a conversation about "Blind Fate. The blindness of fate. Or whatever" and whether faith "actually, really, practically helpfs]?" He recalls "the stark terror" he has seen in her eyes, thinks about love, and realizes his death would cause nobody, even his mother, "more than a momentary regret" (205). But in this conversation he displays a newfound sensitivity to his parishioners' welfare while Clare articulates the discomfort she feels confronting a world that "doesn't make sense" and her guilt over being "intemperate and uncharitable" and alive when a child is dead. (14) George notices that she too "was in some way detached from ordinary existence" (207-08, 209). The visit concludes after Clare, having earlier recognized his desire for her and that sexual inadequacy was deeply implicated in his self-doubts, indirectly offers herself to him: "if there's anything I can do, I think just at this moment I'd rather like you to say. It would be all right" (209). Both need comfort, but George sadly declines, says he must leave, and she humbly, without resentment, accepts the rejection.

The offer is for mutual comfort, the gesture perhaps more important than its being acted upon. And despite the stress on fate, the exchange of the two characters entails positive choices, Clare's to help another and George's to recognize his problems cannot be helped by evasions of reality or a temporary and problematic sexual encounter. The novel's conclusion might seem quite negative--on the way back to the church George sees it in the dark rather than in the magical glow of the floodlights--but he and Clare are both humanized, perhaps permanently. He has experienced sympathy for his congregation and regret over Martin's death; he has lost much of his self-consciousness, even his embarrassed snort of a laugh; and he has faced a reality that neither pitifully self-aggrandizing letters to his mother nor sexual consummation can obscure. But perhaps he has been shocked into a condition that will allow him, a sadder and wiser man, to resurrect his life. Change may last and lead to good in George's life, and to Clare's as well. Their detachment "from [the] everyday reality" of habitual thought and action might prove transformative. The novel does not assert this possibility--the future is uncertain--but it makes space for it, for neither is Doom assured. What is clear, however, is that the novel attempts to direct readers toward that space.

Judgment Day ends in a brief return to the Doom painting with its conflictive story about whether choice, connectedness, and order, all three in the service of humanity/humaneness, can overcome those forces arrayed against happiness. Back at the church, George mechanically takes up ongoing business including plans for church repair funded by property insurance, plans that include restoration of the Doom after its centuries of deterioration: "an expensive and tricky job, evidently, but one which, the expert felt, would bring out the colors and greatly enhance the effect" (210). In this, the novel's final sentence, Lively insinuates "conflicts and ambiguities" one last time. What "effect" is being enhanced or what message restored? To a modern audience, is it about salvation or doom or simply some historical or aesthetic quality with little relevance to the present? The painting can be seen as multivalent and elusive, its meaning or suite of meanings to be accepted or rejected or ignored depending on the attitudes of its present-day beholders. But the novel pushes toward a particular reading, for it has shown that in one sense or another we all are doomed--for one thing, we all must die--and in that regard it is appropriate that the interest value of a lurid descent into Hell trumps that of a decorous ascent to heaven. Should we not feel sympathy for these sufferers without chance of the restoration that yet remains possible for George and Clare? At once secular and in its way deeply religious, Judgment Day enacts an appeal for humane thought and action, qualities Lively suggests are lacking in a God capable of dooming souls to everlasting torture. Unlike them, and despite the complexities of the human condition, we are still alive and might have a choice in the matter.



(1) Lively's Cleopatra's Sister presents another exploration of the choice-contingency relationship as it influences characters' lives. As various critics have suggested, the novel's references to Cleopatra suggest the "Cleopatra's nose" view of historical contingency: the idea that subsequent history would have played out differently in some unpredictably ramifying ways had the queen's nose been a different shape. The notion of alternate histories relates as well to Charles Darwin's nose, which in his autobiography he says came close to scuttling his participation in the Beagle voyage that provided the evidentiary catalyst for the theory of evolution by natural selection. Scientific and cultural history would have been different in unpredictable ways had Captain FitzRoy not overcome his physiognomic aversion to Darwin's nose that inclined him to reject Darwin for the voyage. Lively's books often register her fascination with the fact that personal and social histories that happened one way might just as easily have happened in others.

(2) Many philosophers of course have taken up the problem of free will vs. fate without producing any generally accepted agreement. Some assert either free will or necessity is absolute, others that they are somehow compatible. Throw contingency into the mix and matters become even more problematic. Fortunately, in imaginative literature all three can be brought into play and profitably so, since existential contradictions and paradoxes are the stuff of sophisticated psychological drama and, on occasion, the engine of character development. Four Views on Free Will (2007), the work of four authors with contrasting positions, presents different philosophical approaches to free will in relation to determinism as well as to chance, luck, or indeterminism (see pp. 3-4 for an overview of "Philosophical Options on the Free Will Problem").

(3) Although she does not promote the evolutionary theory of reciprocal altruism, Lively's communitarian disposition loosely fits with the idea, initially presented by Darwin, that morality developed from the survival value of group cooperation in which supporting the welfare of others elicits sympathy and reciprocal support. Lively's fiction merely asserts that those who behave morally--who wish to help and not harm--are more satisfied with themselves and the world, a position for which sociologists and psychologists have found considerable evidence.

(4) There is surprisingly little criticism of Judgment Day, but this is true of most of her novels apart from those nominated for the Booker Prize: The Road to Lichfield (1977), According to Mark (1984), and Moon Tiger. Her novels have been widely reviewed, however.

(5) A drawback of the study is that it involves only males.

(6) Noting the growing acceptance of ethics-based literary criticism since the late 1990s, Christina Kotte writes that "recent ethical criticism has insisted that there can be an ethical dimension to a narrative's destabilization of representation itself." In this context she situates Lively's Booker-prize-winning novel Moon Tiger, in which its protagonist's "break-up of her confident trust in her own terms of reference... derive[s] from a fundamental ethical moment, i.e., the encounter with altcrity" (4, 139). Judgment Day does not challenge "terms of reference" nearly to the degree of the later novel, but it does juxtapose its protagonists' differing constructions of reality and gradually establishes overlapping "terms of reference" as emotionally tinged confrontations with otherness provoke them into self-awareness and sympathy.

(7) The novel's understated quality corresponds to Erica Brown's description of Lively's late style as "middlebrow," a characterization in which the critic undermines and reverses the term's pejorative significations of shallowness and pretentiousness in which gestures toward high seriousness uneasily coincide with the goal of wide popularity. One aspect of Lively's "late style"--which I believe describes most of her early fiction as well--is, as it operates in her novel Family Album (2009), "Lively's deliberate disappointment of the reader's need for revelation" in that "revelations that should resolve the narrative tension or suspense are either refused or in fact revealed slowly and gradually" (234). Responding to denigration of the "middlebrow" as focused on the traditional woman's world of domesticity and family matters, and oftentimes upon romance. Brown also believes that, as with Lively's late style generally, Family Album challenges "conventional patriarchal narratives of maturation and development" by focusing on "the importance of the domestic work involved in maintaining a home and caring for children and the productive connections that can be made between this work and the work of writing" (240). In both its downplaying of revelation and drama and its emphasis on everyday family affairs. Judgment Day also attests to Lively's subtle "middlebrow" form of writing. I thank the anonymous peer reviewer of this article for calling my attention to Brown's critique.

(8) These factors are not necessarily negative in their consequences for individuals' lives--they might provide opportunities or space for some form of constructive regeneration, for instance--but more often than not they are such both psychologically and socially.

(9) J. L. Carr's novel A Month in the Country (1980), nominated for the Booker Prize and recipient of the Guardian Fiction Prize, is also constructed around a doom wall painting.

(10) The Doom in the Holy Trinity Church of Coventry, one of dozens of Doom paintings that survived the Reformation but in deteriorated states, is a particularly good example of this schema. Apparently around forty of these paintings survive in English churches.

(11) This strain of ambiguous pessimism runs deep in Penelope Lively's creative psyche, perhaps as the result of her early life. Why Lively focuses on threat and negative potential is uncertain, but it might be connected to her experience when, as a young girl, she was abruptly uprooted from her family and from what she characterizes as an almost idyllic childhood in Cairo--an experience she relates in her memoir Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived (1994)--and sent to England and the harshness of a boarding school she detested.

(12) It is unclear what this reference to Blake, whom she mentions in other novels, adds to the idea of the conventional "finger of fate" that in this passage presages doom. Blake is negative about the Old Testament Jehovah, whom he associates with Satan as the lesser god and creator of the fallen world most people experience, and in Blake's mythos Jehovah smites happiness by teaching humans of their sinfulness and insignificance. That might be what Lively has in mind. But according to S. Foster Damon, the Blakean "finger of God." perhaps drawing on the Sistine Chapel's representation of God animating Adam through the touch of His finger, signifies not just destruction but also the point when divine creative inspiration touches fallen humanity through Jesus's incarnation (138). The finger of God therefore might point to potential salvation--from disconnection and self-absorption--for Clare, George, and others. I find it unlikely, however, that Lively would employ this obscure element of Blake's abstruse symbolic system even if she knew of it.

(13) Expressing the distance she habitually perceives between reality and ideality, as well as her often expressed respect for language, Clare comments, "[a] fantastic bike would have wings and be able to talk" (161).

(14) When Clare argues that "[t]olerance and generosity and understanding" are what the New Testament advocates, with irritation George tells her that things are "so simple" for unbelievers like Clare, and he speaks of the "ordinary people who come to church, mostly they haven't much idea of why they do believe and I've never been able to tell them..." (207). From all we have been told and shown about George, this concern for "ordinary people," who in his opinion share his muddled understandings, is new and hopeful.


Bausch, Richard. "The Posthumous Power to Hurt." Rev. of Passing On by Penelope Lively. New York Times. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. New York: New York Review Books, 2000.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Rev. ed. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College P, 2013.

Fischer, John Martin, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas. Four Views on Free Will. Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Fitzgerald, Penelope. "Heat in the Dust." Rev. of Cleopatra's Sister by Penelope Lively. Evening Standard (London) 6 May 1993: 46.

Kotte, Christina. Ethical Dimensions in British Historiographie Metafiction: Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Penelope Lively. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher, 2001.

Lively, Penelope. According to Mark. New York: Perennial-Harper, 1989.

--. "Bones in the Sand." Innocence & Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature. Ed. Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire. Boston: Lothrop, 1987. 13-21.

--. Cleopatra's Sister. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

--. Dancing Fish and Ammonites. New York: Viking, 2014.

--. Family Album. New York: Viking, 2009.

--. Moon Tiger. New York: Perennial-Harper, 1988.

--. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

--. The Road to Lichfield. New York: Grove, 1977.

Moran, Mary Hurley. Penelope Lively. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Valliant, George. Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge: Belknap, 2012.

Watkins, Susan. "'Summoning Your Youth at Will': Memory, Time, and Aging in the Work of Penelope Lively, Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing." Frontiers 34 (2013): 222-344.

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Author:Glendening, John
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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