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“We will write it again”: subverted hermeneutics in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

Aloysia Rousseau


Arcadia subvertit le genre policier dans la mesure où l’histoire n’est pas déchiffrée mais réinterprétée dans cette pièce. Le détective est un universitaire arriviste qui détourne les preuves pour parvenir à ses fins. Tom Stoppard invite le lecteur/spectateur à se méfier du signe écrit, sollicitant sa vigilance et l’invitant à participer à la quête herméneutique. On s’intéressera dans un premier temps à la double trame temporelle d’Arcadia comme étant une caractéristique du genre policier. On verra ensuite la manière dont Bernard réécrit l’histoire avant d’analyser la prédominance du signe visuel dans la pièce.

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1Although I shall not got so far as considering Tom Stoppard as the British Thomas Pynchon (Arcadia is not The Crying of Lot 49 even though both works have indeed perplexed the readers and spectators to a certain degree), I will however try and demonstrate that the play can be considered as a postmodern detective story. Such subversion is not attained through parody though, as is usually the case with postmodern fiction and has been achieved in the past by Stoppard. Plays such as The Real Inspector Hound (1968) or After Magritte (1971) are obvious parodies of whodunits in which clown-like sleuths wearing inflated pontoons serving as swamp boots conduct thorough investigations. There is however no Inspector Hound or Foot in Arcadia. These caricatures have been replaced by Bernard, an ambitious scholar who wants to be the first to reveal that Lord Byron has killed the minor poet Ezra Chater in a duel, a murder which in fact never occurred.

2Arcadia is not a comic rewriting of the detective story but springs from a sincere desire on behalf of its author to emulate the detective genre. Stoppard’s interest in science, and more precisely in the theory of chaos, as well as his wish to confront classicism and romanticism have often been pointed out as being the two starting points for Arcadia. A third impetus should however be added, none other than detective fiction, as Stoppard himself underlines in an interview given to Charles Spencer: “Arcadia is as full of theses as anything I’ve ever done, but if I hadn’t found my way into a kind of detective story, none of it would have been worth a damn dramatically” (Spencer, 15). “A kind of detective story” indeed: Stoppard adopts the form and structure of the whodunit only to subtly undermine it from within. That is why I will first focus on Arcadia as adopting the typical structure of the detective story before highlighting the subversive process at work in the play, relying not on parody but on a distorted hermeneutical quest, and finally identifying the spectator as detective.

The split time frame: Arcadia as a typical whodunit?

3The originality of Arcadia’s double time frame has often been stressed by critics and spectators alike. This device had of course already been used in novels, for example in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (1985) and Chatterton (1987) or in A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), which was in fact source material for Arcadia, but it had seldom been seen in the theatre at the time, apart from a few experiments by Caryl Churchill in her plays Could Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982). Although the critics did point out the transposition of this technique from page to stage, they failed to underline its obvious link with the temporality of the detective story, perhaps because it has been overshadowed by the scientific interpretation. The use of the split time frame as being a dramatisation of the theory of chaos has indeed eclipsed another stimulating reading of this temporal structure as emblematic of the whodunit. In his seminal essay “Typology of Detective Fiction”, collected in his Poetics of Prose (Poétique de la prose), Tzvetan Todorov pinpoints the dual nature of the detective story:

À la base du roman à énigme on trouve une dualité, et c’est elle qui va nous guider pour le décrire. Ce roman ne contient pas une mais deux histoires : l’histoire du crime et l’histoire de l’enquête. […] Les personnages de cette seconde histoire, l’histoire de l’enquête, n’agissent pas, ils apprennent. (Todorov, 57)

4Not only is Arcadia divided into two stories, that of Sidley Park’s inhabitants in 1809 and that of their descendants nearly two hundred years later, but this second story indeed stages individuals who search, discover and try to make sense of the events that occurred in the house two centuries before.

5Bernard, Hannah, Hermione and Valentine are what I would call retrospective characters in that they assume a nostalgic stance, being entirely devoted to the past. Each of these characters can in fact be considered as a sleuth preoccupied with his or her own investigation. While Valentine is wondering whether or not Thomasina was a mathematical genius and Bernard whether or not Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater, Hannah tries to figure out who the hermit of Sidley Park was. Contrary to these three characters who decipher texts, Hermione’s area of interest is the garden, which she excavates, just as Hannah, Bernard and Valentine dig up scriptural clues. In semiotic terms, they can be said to be decoding what has been encoded in 1809. The major means of communication in 1809 is indeed not oral but textual: Thomasina and her contemporaries spend most of their time writing letters, mathematical and philosophical essays, articles, autographs and poems, an activity which in fact takes place onstage. Not only do we know that the inhabitants of Sidley Park favour writing over speech, but we also witness their written conversations. We can see the letters being exchanged on the stage. Their entire life is put down in writing, as is underlined by Thomasina: “Papa has no need of the recording angel, his life is written in the game book” (21). All these documents constitute scriptural clues that will be decoded by the amateur detectives at the end of the 20th century.

6The beginning of each scene, and more precisely what the stage directions tell us of the postures of the characters present on stage, are highly representative of this encoding/decoding process. While the scenes taking place in 1809 show characters dedicated to the act of writing, i.e. encoding, those taking place in 1993 open with characters reading, in other words decoding. At the very beginning of the play, Thomasina and Septimus are presented as authors whose thoughts are put down in writing, thus liable to be analysed, hence the insistence on the props in the stage directions, emphasized by the use of the polysyndeton:

There are two people, each busy with books and paper and pen and ink, separately occupied. The pupil is Thomasina Coverly, aged 13. The tutor is Septimus Hodge, aged 22. Each has an open book. Hers is a slim mathematics primer. His is a handsome thick quarto, brand new, a vanity production, with little tapes to tie when the book is closed. His loose papers, etc, are kept in a stiff-backed portfolio which also ties up with tapes. (3)

7Contrary to Thomasina and Septimus, Bernard, Hannah and Valentine are almost always presented as readers, indirect addressees of the messages written by their predecessors. Although Hannah has written a best-seller on Caroline Lamb and Bernard and Valentine have authored various literary and scientific articles, they are shown to us as incapable of producing anything apart from a fallacious article published by Bernard. They are in fact entirely dedicated to their deciphering enterprise, as Hannah’s posture at the beginning of the second scene plainly shows:

Hannah is leafing through the pages of Mr Noakes’s sketch book. Also to hand, opened and closed, are a number of small volumes like diaries (these turn out to be Lady Croom’s ‘garden books’). After a few moments, Hannah takes the sketch book to the windows, comparing the view with what has been drawn, and then she replaces the sketch book on the reading stand. (22)

8Hannah’s decoding operates on three different levels, scriptural, pictorial and botanical, since she does not content herself with reading Lady Croom’s garden books but also analyses the landscape, comparing it with Noakes’ rendition of Sidley Park. The opposition between a creative process in 1809 and its reception in 1993 is a pattern to be found throughout the play. Although scene three opens with Septimus “reading a letter which has just arrived” (48), a piece of information that might be considered as a counter-argument, he in fact soon dismisses the letter to write his own text, an activity which will last during the whole scene. The following scenes confirm the predominance of the investigative process in 1993: scene four opens with Hannah reading aloud from Thomasina’s lesson book, scene five with Bernard reading his analysis of the events occurring in 1809 and scene seven with Chloë reading the Saturday newspapers. These would-be sleuths are thus obsessed with their investigation, learning and not acting according to the distinction established by Todorov.

9That said, Arcadia is, as mentioned earlier, “a kind of detective story” given that the split time frame identified by Todorov as being essential to the whodunit is in fact undermined by Stoppard. Todorov describes the first story as being necessarily absent from the plot:

La première [histoire], celle du crime, est en fait l’histoire d’une absence : sa caractéristique la plus juste est qu’elle ne peut être immédiatement présente dans le livre. En d’autres mots, le narrateur ne peut pas nous transmettre directement les répliques des personnages qui y sont impliqués, ni nous décrire leurs gestes. (Todorov, 58-59)

10Stoppard infringes this rule by placing the characters of the first story on the stage of the theatre before the spectators’ eyes, a point I will discuss later on. The only events which escape the spectators’ gaze are the duels between Septimus, Chater and Brice, not because they have taken place off-stage but simply because they have in fact never occurred. This is where Bernard comes in, filling in the gaps not through deduction but by using his imagination: “Do you honestly think no one wrote a word? How could they not! It dropped from sight but we will write it again!” (67).

Bernard as anti-detective: rewriting the story

11I will now focus on the character of Bernard as being an anti-detective which will lead me to identify Arcadia as a postmodern detective story not, however, in any traditional sense. The postmodern detective story is usually defined as frustrating the readers’ expectations by offering no stable solution, as is underlined by Stefano Tani in his book The Doomed Detective:

A conventional detective story is a fiction in which an amateur or professional detective tries to discover by rational means the solution of a mysterious occurrence – generally a crime, usually a murder. This definition implies the presence of at least three invariable elements: the detective, the process of detection, and the solution. (Tani, 41)

12He then identifies the subversive process as being applied to the third invariable element, that is to say the solution: “So it is to the solution that the anti-detective novelist devotes his attention; he anticipates the solution in the narrative sequence […], fulfils it only partially […], denies it […], or parodies it” (Tani, 41-42). I will try to demonstrate that Stoppard does not devote his attention to the solution but to the second element, the process of detection. Arcadia does offer a solution: by the end of the play, the characters and spectators are fully aware that Septimus was the hermit of Sidley Park, that Byron did not kill Ezra Chater in a duel and that Thomasina was without doubt a genius. If “a conventional detective story is a fiction in which an amateur or professional detective tries to discover by rational means the solution of a mysterious occurrence,” Arcadia is without doubt an unconventional detective story in which the highly amateur detective uses means which are everything but rational. Contrary to what he asserts in scene four, Bernard’s investigative method is not based on objective research: “They wrote – they scribbled – they put it on paper. It was their employment. Their diversion. Paper is what they had. And there’ll be more. There is always more. We can find it!” (67). Bernard in fact distorts the evidence that he finds, inventing rather than deducting, as is made obvious in his use of the British library database. The biographical note describes Chater as being a botanist, thus leading Bernard to assume that it is not the same Chater as the poet: “There’s only one other Chater in the British library database […] but he wasn’t a poet like our Ezra, he was a botanist who described a dwarf dahlia in Martinique and died there after being bitten by a monkey” (31). There is no room for doubt and ambiguity in Bernard’s conclusion. The academic seems to have forgotten that the very basis of research is to acknowledge contradiction rather than try to erase it.

13Bernard’s hermeneutical quest leads him to draw erroneous conclusions. His reconstruction of the events thus becomes a fictitious story. Scene five opens with a long monologue typical of detective fiction. Bernard, like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Auguste Dupin before him, decides to share with the other characters the result of his investigation. However, contrary to the rational reasoning of his illustrious predecessors, Bernard’s story is based entirely on assumption, as the very first words of his speech exemplify: “Did it happen? Could it happen? Undoubtedly it could” (72). The adverb undoubtedly presupposing certainty and the modal could which expresses possibility are put together to form an absurd oxymoron which betrays Bernard’s manipulation of facts. The various occurrences of the modal “could” (72, 75, 77) and of the adjectives “conceivable” or “likely” (76), (“Is it conceivable that the letters were already in the book when Byron borrowed it?”, “Is it likely that Hodge would have lent Byron the book without first removing the three private letters?”) confirm the deeply hypothetical nature of Bernard’s account which he tries to conceal by using the lexical field of logic and authenticity. “Nothing could be more eloquent”, “what is certain” (75), “it is surely indisputable” (77), “on the evidence” (79) are among the expressions used by Bernard to impose an artificial credibility on his highly disputable explanation. The academic favours form over content as is exemplified in his pompous rhetoric. His peroration “do we need to look far?” (80), his conceited use of the word “murderee” (72), his hyperbolic condemnation of Byron’s mother described as “his vulgar hectoring monster of a mother” (74) as well as his peremptory instructions “I will be taking questions at the end. Constructive comments will be welcome” (75) all pinpoint the profoundly inane nature of Bernard’s reasoning. The academic appears as the epitome of the anti-detective relying on “gut instinct,” as he himself puts it (68), rather than a rational course of argument. He trusts his heart rather than his brain and ignores the elements which do not cohere as is underlined by Hannah: “You’ve left out everything which doesn’t fit” (80). Hannah in fact denounces Bernard’s complete lack of intellectual honesty, considering what the scholar believes to be “the most sensational literary discovery of the century” (79) as a mere chat show: “It’s only performance art you know, Rhetoric. They used to teach it in ancient times, like PT. It’s not about being right, they had philosophy for that. Rhetoric was their chat show” (88).

14Yet is Bernard only a failed detective? His hermeneutical quest, based not on understanding texts but on rewriting them, leads me to wonder whether he cannot be considered as a figure of the postmodern reader placed within the play. Bernard would thus not be considered as a dishonest researcher but simply as a reader, as defined by reception theorists such as Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser or Stanley Fish. Bernard decides to make up for the lack of information by lending his voice to the previous inhabitants of Sidley Park, rewriting for example Byron’s letter to Septimus, a letter which has been burnt and to which neither Septimus nor the spectators have had access,  “a letter from Lord Byron never to be read by a living soul” (96). Never mind that the letter has been destroyed; here comes Bernard with his overactive imagination standing in for Lord Byron:

There is a platonic letter which confirms everything – lost but ineradicable, like radio voices rippling through the universe for all eternity. ‘My dear Hodge – here I am in Albania and you’re the only person in the whole world who knows why. Poor C! I never wished him any harm – except in the Piccadilly, of course – it was the woman who bade me eat, dear Hodge! – what a tragic business, but thank God it ended well for poetry. Yours ever, B. –
PS. Burn this.’ (78)

15In the light of reader-response criticism, Bernard’s rewriting of Byron’s letter appears as a postmodern need to fill in the gaps or, as a more radical Stanley Fish puts its in Is There a Text in This Class?, a decision to “make literature” (Fish, 11). The events that Bernard is manipulating are moreover historical rather than fictitious thus blurring the line between these two entities, yet another tenet of postmodernism as we are reminded by Linda Hutcheon in her Poetics of Postmodernism: “History’s referents are presumed to be real; fiction’s are not. But […] what postmodern novels teach is that, in both cases, they actually refer at the first level to other texts: we know the past (which really did exist) only through its textualized remains” (Hutcheon, 119). The source for both fiction and history is scriptural, something which Bernard has very clearly assimilated hence his many inquiries about letters that might have been found: “What about the letters? No mention?” (35), “And he doesn’t pop up in the letters at all?” (40). As a typical postmodern reader, Bernard knows that the past is to be found in texts. Yet Stoppard suggests another means of recovering the past, based not on texts likely to be fictionalized but on empirical evidence. As I have already mentioned, the events in 1809 occur right under the spectator’s gaze.

Dramatic irony: the spectator as detective

16Arcadia postulates the unreliability of the written sign. Bernard’s deciphering errors are evidence of the impossible transparency of texts which are always subject to various interpretations. Visual deciphering prevails over textual deciphering in what appears to be a dramatisation of empiricism. Bernard’s investigation is thus doomed to failure since he cannot resort to observation and experience but has to content himself with textual remains. The whodunit is once again subverted since the traditional optimism and confidence of the detective is replaced by resignation. Bernard fully acknowledges the limits of his investigation, as he admits to Hannah:

BERNARD. Christ, what do you want?
HANNAH. Proof.
BERNARD. Proof? Proof? You’d have to be there, you silly bitch! (66)

17Experience is, contrary to scriptural evidence, defined as being the only valid means of attaining the truth. You have to be there, as Bernard puts it, an axiom which becomes a leitmotiv in the play, later voiced in the negative by Hannah:

BERNARD. Then why wouldn’t Hodge get [the letters] back?
HANNAH. I don’t know, I wasn’t there.
BERNARD. That’s right, you bloody weren’t. (77)

18Yet as Bernard soon recalls, he wasn’t there either, having therefore no superiority over Hannah:

VALENTINE. How did Chater find out the reviewer was Byron?
BERNARD (irritated). I don’t know, I wasn’t there, was I? (78)

19The only one who was in fact “there” is the spectator who is offered unmediated access to past events, contrary to what Todorov describes in “The Typology of Detective Fiction”. While Bernard can only have mediated access to the past, making deductions from the textual evidence that he has, the spectator’s sole task is to open his eyes and prick up his ears. By doing so, he can see that it is Septimus and not Byron who is the addressee of Chater’s challenge to a duel and witnesses the envelope, that is to say the only evidence of the addressee’s identity, being thrown away by Septimus, “He opens the letter. There is no envelope as such, but there is a ‘cover’ which, folded and sealed, does the same service. Septimus tosses the cover negligently aside and reads” (7), an action that will be repeated later on with Mrs Chater’s letter: “Septimus opens Mrs Chater’s note. He crumples the envelope and throws it away” (21). Such information might seem superfluous but it in fact accounts for Bernard’s misinterpretation two centuries later. As Bernard hastily notes, very conscious that this constitutes a flaw in his investigation, “The covers have not survived” (75).

20I would like to end this paper by commenting upon Stoppard’s definition of Arcadia as being first and foremost a playful investigation. The absence of intermediary gives the spectator an edge over the characters, as Stoppard himself puts it in an interview given in 1992 in which he summarizes the plot of Arcadia: “It’s about literary detection… about people speculating about what happens… and in theory the fun is seeing how wrong they can be; because we’ve been there and they haven’t” (qtd in Delaney, 258).

  • 1  This article is William H. Stowe’s translation of “Le Roman Policier, ou comment l’intelligence se (...)

21I have shown that Arcadia could be considered as a postmodern detective story not because it refuses to offer a solution but because of its subverted hermeneutics based on an imaginative process rather than an interpretive one. Yet Arcadia is also a detective story in the traditional sense of the term in that it triggers the spectator’s pleasure based, according to Roger Caillois in “The Detective Novel as Game”,1 on a visual trick: “The pleasure one gets from a detective novel is not that of listening to a story, but rather that of watching a ‘magic’ trick which the magician immediately explains” (Caillois, 4). The spectators indeed feel that a magic trick is being performed before them when they are watching Arcadia and take great pleasure in discovering its secret mechanism. Letters are burnt before our eyes, waltzes are danced and tortoises are used as paperweights all the while disseminating clues which will confound the characters and enlighten the audience.

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CAILLOIS, Roger. “The Detective Novel as Game”, trans. William W. Stowe, New York, HBJ Publishers, 1983.

DELANEY, Paul, ed. Tom Stoppard in Conversation, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994.

FISH, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1980.

HUTCHEON, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction,London and New York, Routledge, 1988.

SPENCER, Charles. “Stoppard, Master of the Play on Words.” Daily Telegraph, 8 September 1993.

STOPPARD, Tom. Arcadia, London, Faber and Faber, 2009.

TANI, Stefano. The Doomed Detective. The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

TODOROV, Tzvetan. Poétique de la prose, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1971.

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1  This article is William H. Stowe’s translation of “Le Roman Policier, ou comment l’intelligence se retire du monde pour se consacrer à ses jeux et comment la société introduit ses problèmes dans ceux-ci” first published in Buenos Aires in 1941.

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Aloysia Rousseau, « “We will write it again”: subverted hermeneutics in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 13 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2011, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Aloysia Rousseau

Université Paris IV-Sorbonne, VALE

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