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The Go-Between (1953) by L.P. Hartley is a tale of a late Victorian childhood that is abruptly changed by a tragic incident. It is told in the form of a flashback by the central character. Hartley had difficulty maintaining commercial success in the early half of his career and The Go-Between can be seen as a significant step forward for him.
Below is a summary of The Go-Between and an explanation of its genre. You will also find a brief exploration of Hartley's background and an analysis of The Go-Between.
The Go-Between centres around Leo Tolston, a man in his sixties. Leo experienced a traumatic incident as a young boy that has permanently impacted him. He finds a childhood diary and is forced to relive what he has been repressing for so long.
The young Leo is a naive and innocent boy living in the late Victorian period. He is asked to spend the summer on the estate of his wealthy friend, Marcus Maudsley. Marcus and Leo met in school and became close when the naive Leo claimed to have magical powers. Leo is from a lower-class family but his mother encourages him to go and stay with Marcus's family in Brandham Hall for the summer.
Despite the class difference, Leo quickly begins to enjoy staying in Brandham Hall. He spends a great deal of time exploring, particularly fascinated by the outhouses that hold various plants. He is also treated kindly by the other inhabitants of the house. During this time, Leo meets a number of people who will become important characters in The Go-Between. He is introduced to Marcus's older sister, Marian, who he soon becomes infatuated with. Leo also encounters Ted Burgess, an intimidating local farmer. Not long after, Leo is introduced to Lord Trimingham who owns the land that Brandham Hall is on. Trimingham takes an interest in Leo and treats him well.
Marcus is struck down by the measles and forced to quarantine in his room. This leads to Leo having more freedom and spending more time alone. He also begins to spend time with both Marian and Ted separately. Trimingham asks Leo to relay a message to Marian that she has left her prayer book in church after a service. This is foreshadowing and sets up Leo's role as a messenger for the rest of The Go-Between.
While playing on Ted's farm, Leo injures his knee and Ted helps tend to his injury. To thank him, Leo agrees to ferry a message from Ted to Marian. This becomes a regular occurrence. Leo consistently takes messages back and forth between Marian and Ted. His innocence leads him to believe they are discussing business of some sort.
Leo eventually opens one of the letters and discovers that it is a love letter. Marian and Ted are having an affair that they must keep a secret because of their different classes. Leo is now uncomfortable acting as their messenger. He attempts to get out of it but is unable to. Not long after, Marcus informs Leo that Marian is now engaged to Lord Trimingham. Leo is relieved and believes this means Marian and Ted's letters will now stop. This does not come to pass and Marian again asks Leo to take a letter to Ted. This upsets Leo greatly but he ends up acting as the couple's messenger once again.
Leo is desperate to break the couple apart. He slightly changes a message Ted sends to Marian and even tries to create a magical potion to split them up. Mrs. Maudsley, Marcus and Marian's mother, has become suspicious of Marian's disappearances. She has recently been unwell as she has been so worried that Marian will break off her engagement with Trimingham. On the day of Leo's birthday, Marian is missing. Mrs. Maudsley forces Leo to help her look for Marian. In a traumatising scene, Mrs. Maudsley and Leo discover Marian and Ted having sex in one of the outhouses. The repercussions of this cause Ted to take his own life.
The Go-Between then returns to Leo as an adult. His life has been permanently impacted by what he witnessed as a child. Ever since then he has shut himself off emotionally. He has not had many intimate relationships as a result. Leo decides to return to Brandham Hall for closure. There he meets an elderly Marian. He discovers that he was not the only one left traumatised by what he saw. Mrs. Maudsley was deeply impacted too. He also discovers that both Marcus and Trimingham have passed away. Marcus lost his life in the First World War. Trimingham married Marian despite her affair. She fell pregnant because of her relationship with Ted but Trimingham raised the child as his own until his death ten years into their marriage.
Marian asks one last favour of Leo while he is visiting. Her grandson believes he is tainted because of his background. Marians asks Leo to tell her grandson that the love she had with Ted was pure and beautiful, not wrong. Leo is reluctant but agrees, becoming the messenger once again for the last time.
The Go-Between can fit under a number of genres. One of these is the bildungsroman genre.
A bildungsroman is a literary genre. From German, it can be literally translated as 'education novel'. A bildungsroman follows a typically young character as they grow and mature into adulthood. This maturing is usually aided by a number of struggles and challenges. Other well-known bildungsromans include Jane Austen's Emma (1815) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847).
The Go-Between, through the medium of a flashback, shows the maturing of Leo Tolston. He begins the story as a young and naive child who does not understand the adult world. Leo is exposed to adult issues by carrying messages back and forth between Marian and Ted. The final incident of discovering Marian and Ted and Ted's subsequent suicide forces Leo to grow up very fast. He loses his innocence. However, Hartley also shows Leo as traumatised by this. He was forced to mature much too young because of what he has witnessed.
Hartley's novel is also a romance.
A romance follows a story in which two characters are in love and share a romantic relationship. The couple often face challenges along the way that make their romance more difficult and complex. Famous romances include Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597).
The forbidden love story between Marian and Ted in The Go-Between makes the novel a romance. But the ending makes it clear that Hartley's novel is specifically a tragic romance. The lovers do not end up together and are torn apart by circumstances as is common in tragic romances.
L.P. Hartley wrote The Go-Between. Hartley was a twentieth-century British novelist and short story writer. He is critically respected but also often overlooked.
L.P. Hartley was born in 1895. He had a comfortable childhood and received a good education. Hartley graduated from Oxford with a degree in Modern History. This degree took longer than expected to complete as Hartley's studies were interrupted by the First World War. Hartley worked as a book reviewer to earn money. He published short story collections and novels but was not commercially successful until the 1940s.
The Go-Between was one of a select few novels by Hartley that revolved around ideas of childhood and maturing. Another of these was Eustace and Hilda (1947). Hartley was better known for writing gothic and supernatural short stories. The Go-Between was a commercial success for Hartley. It helped him to become more respected and acknowledged in the literary community.
As seen in The Go-Between, much of L.P Hartley's work is preoccupied with the development of the twentieth century. Hartly often looked back on the optimism and idealism of the late Victorian period and how it disappeared after two world wars. Hartley's work also often explored morality and class.
Hartley continued to write both novels and short stories into his old age. His work did not receive the success that it had had at the mid-point of his career. This was disappointing for Hartley. L.P. Hartley passed away in 1972.
Now let's investigate and analyse The Go-Between. This will help to get a sense of the meaning behind the text.
We will now take a look at the themes in The Go-Between.
Class is key to an analysis of The Go-Between. It is possible that if class had not been a factor, Marian and Ted would never have had the tragic ending that they did.
Hartley is representing a very specific time period in his novel. This period is the late Victorian era that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. At this time, society had very strict ideas about class. People were expected to stick to their class and behave in the way thought appropriate by society. Marriage between classes was particularly looked down upon.
These issues are very relevant in Marian and Ted's relationship. The only way they can communicate is through letters and the only way they can see each other is in secret meetings. This is because Marian is from a very wealthy upper-class background and Ted is a working-class farmer. The couple can be certain that no one around them would ever approve of their relationship. Marian's deep distress about this is obvious when Leo questions her over why she cannot simply just marry Ted. Leo's naivety means he cannot understand this situation yet.
This is complicated even further when Marian becomes engaged to Lord Trimingham. He is seen as an appropriate match for her. Trimingham is the character in The Go-Between with the highest social rank.
Hartley shows how deep Marian and Ted's love is by the fact that they continue their affair despite Marian's engagement. Their deep love is most extremely emphasised by Ted's taking of his own life. This is traumatising for all involved. It could be that Ted believed this late Victorian world would never allow him and Marian to be together and, therefore, he did not want to live.
It is also relevant that Leo is who Marian and Ted choose to carry their messages. Like Ted, Leo is also from a lower-class background. Leo is also unique because he is too young and naive to understand societal and class rules yet. Everyone around him, even Marcus, understands that it is not considered appropriate for different classes to mix. As seen in the below quote, Leo cannot comprehend this and asks Marian why she cannot just marry Ted. Leo is the perfect messenger for them as he does not yet understand why they must communicate via letters in the first place.
“Marian, why don’t you marry Ted?” It was only for a moment, but in that moment her face reflected all the misery she had been going through; it was a heart’s history in a look. “I couldn’t, I couldn’t!” She wailed. “Can’t you see why?” (Chp. 20)
At the beginning of The Go-Between, it is clear that the young Leo is a very innocent child. He still believes in magic and sees the world in a childlike way. Leo is aware of the adult world around him but does not have access to it yet. For example, he begs Ted to explain sex to him but in a moment of innocence refers to it as 'spooning'. Leo's innocence is also represented symbolically. Marian buys Leo a new suit as his other clothes are not considered proper enough for the new high society he is in. The suit is green and Leo loves it, frequently showing it off. The colour green can be seen to represent innocence. This is even said by Marcus to Leo in a moment of anger later on.
As a bildungsroman, it is expected that Leo, as the protagonist, will experience challenges and struggles that push him towards maturity. In The Go-Between, there is a more extreme version of this maturing present. Leo has a sudden and abrupt loss of innocence. He and Mrs. Maudsley discover Marian and Ted having sex in an outhouse. Ted then commits suicide as a result. This leaves Leo permanently traumatised and impacts the rest of his adult life. He does not merely lose his innocence but loses access to the emotional side of his life because of what he has witnessed. Leo is sharply forced into adulthood before he is ready for it.
The older Leo acknowledges how much of an effect this loss of innocence has had on him. He decided to cut himself off from emotions and focus solely on facts. This has led to Leo's life lacking any intimate relationships. His loss of innocence at a young age has had a detrimental impact on his life.
Now we will take a look at some important quotes from The Go-Between and their meanings.
|'The messenger of the gods! I thought of that, and even when the attention of the gods had been withdrawn from me, it seemed to enhance my status. I pictured myself threading my way through the Zodiac, calling on one star after another.'||Chp. 8||This marks the moment when Leo becomes a messenger for people. This originally happens because Trimingham asks Leo to tell Marian she has left her prayer book in church. He dubs Leo a messenger and Leo is initially very pleased by this title.|
|'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'||Prologue||This is the first line of The Go-Between. This sets up the fact that Hartley's novel will be looking back at the past. The world has changed hugely since Leo was a child and this will be explored.|
|'But what spell could I employ to break the spell that Ted had cast on Marian? I had no knowledge of Black Magic and relied on the inspiration of the moment. If while concocting the spell I could excite myself and frighten myself, I felt it had a better chance of success.'||Chp. 21||Leo's innocence and naivety can be seen in this quote. He still believes in magic. He thinks he may be able to use this magic to break Marian and Ted apart.|
|'It was then we saw them, together on the ground, the Virgin and the Water-Carrier, two bodies moving like one. I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs. Maudsley’s repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella.'||Chp. 23||This quote shows the moment that Leo's innocence is lost. He and Mrs. Maudsley discover Marian and Ted having sex. It is this incident that impacts Leo's life and forces him to repress his emotions into adulthood.|
The Go-Between centres around Leo Tolston as he looks back on his late Victorian childhood and the traumatic incident that impacted his entire adult life.
The Go-Between deals with many themes, two of the most important being class and loss of innocence.
It is a bildungsroman and a romance.
The Go-Between has many meanings. It shows how much the world has changed since the beginning of the twentieth century. It also shows how cruel class boundaries can be and how they impact people.
The Go-Between is thought to be inspired by some things Hartley experienced in his life but it is not a true story.
When was The Go-Between published?
What genres does The Go-Between fit under?
Bildungsroman and romance.
What are two key themes in The Go-Between?
Class and loss of innocence.
What kind of romance is The Go-Between?
What causes the loss of innocence moment for Leo?
When he witnesses Marian and Ted having sex and Ted's subsequent suicide.
What colour is used to symbolise innocence in The Go-Between?
How does Leo first become a messenger?
Trimingham asks Leo to tell Marian she has forgotten her prayer book in church.
Why is Leo a good choice to act as Ted and Marian's messenger?
Because he is too young and naive to understand the class boundaries that keep them apart.
What is the definition of a bildungsroman?
A bildungsroman follows a young character as they grow into maturity aided by struggles and challenges.
Why does Marian ask an older Leo to be her messenger one last time?
To convince her grandson that the love she shared with Ted was beautiful and not wrong.
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