The Go-Between is a coming of age story with a twist. The novel has the basic structure of a bildungsroman—a novel about a youth growing up. However, as the adult Leo narrates his story as about his childhood experiences at Brandham Hall, it’s clear from his description of himself as a man who has spent his life surrounded by “facts”—as opposed to feelings—that Leo has missed out on sexual and emotional maturity altogether, and that the story he is about to tell is the trauma that has caused this stunted growth. Because Leo’s narration reveals almost nothing about the years between leaving Brandham Hall as a youth and the book’s present, there is the sense that these years have been somehow skipped over or neglected. Indeed, these are the years in which Leo would have grown up and lived the majority of his adult life. By leaving these years out of the narrative, the novel demonstrates the catastrophic effects of trauma on youth.
The novel is set in motion when, in the prologue, the elder Leo finds a diary written by his younger self about events that he had repressed. Later in the prologue, Leo imagines a conversation with his younger self in which the younger Leo, as preserved by the diary, asks the older: “Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start?” In other words, the older Leo knows that he is a disappointment to his own youthful ideals of what growing up would mean—instead of living a life of emotion and vitality, he has spent his “time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people’s books instead of writing [his] own.”
Older Leo comments, though, that it is precisely because of the behavior of his younger self (as described through the main body of the story) that he has grown up to be such a “dull dog.” He tells his younger self that “it was you who let me down … You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched.” Here the elder Leo refers to the myth of Icarus, who in his youthful exuberance flew too near to the sun on his wax and feather wings, and then fell to his death. This reference reinforces the idea of a coming-of-age interrupted by trauma.
Young Leo knows himself to be on the precipice of “growing up”—a mysterious idea that both excites and frightens him. His time at Brandham Hall represents his attempts to wrestle with that idea and find his place in the world. He is youthfully naive, especially when it comes to sex and love. It’s this innocence in Leo that makes Marian choose green for his new outfit, which draws comparisons from the others to Robin Hood (Leo doesn’t realize he’s being mocked). Young Leo is attracted to Marian, but not in an explicitly physical way. He does, however, feel a growing desire for nudity: “my notions of decency were vague and ill-defined, as were all my ideas relating to sex; yet they were definite enough for me to long for the release of casting them off with my clothes, and being like a tree or a flower, with nothing between me and Nature.” Though his ideas about sex are still new and hazy, he senses that it’s an important part of adult life.
Though the older Leo tries to make peace with his younger self through the telling of his story, and by visiting Marian at the novel’s close, so much time has passed that this can only be a partial, incomplete reconciliation. That’s why, as he heads to Brandham Hall fifty years after his last visit there, Leo still feels himself “a foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it.” Further, when at the end of the novel the elder Leo agrees to Marian’s request that he go to tell her grandson that there is no curse and that Marian and Ted’s love had been “so much happiness and beauty,” this moment of healing is also a signal of trauma: even as Leo agrees to try to mend the rift between Marian and her grandson, he never escapes the role of being Marian’s go-between. He remains stuck in the role he had as a youth when he first suffered the original trauma.
Coming of Age and Trauma ThemeTracker
Coming of Age and Trauma Quotes in The Go-Between
If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: “Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people’s books instead of writing your own? What has become of the Ram, the Bull, and the Lion, the example I gave you to emulate? Where above all is the Virgin, with her shining face and long curling tresses, whom I entrusted to you”—what should I say?
I should have an answer ready. “Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.
I was urged to put out more spells, one of which was that we should be given a whole holiday. Into this last I put all the psychic force I had, and I was rewarded. Soon after the beginning of June we had an outbreak of measles. By half-term more than half the school was down with it, and soon after came the dramatic announcement that we were to break up.
Marcus wasn’t with me, I was alone, exploring some derelict outhouses which for me had obviously more attraction than the view of Brandham Hall from the S.W. In one, which was roofless as well as derelict, I suddenly came upon the plant [the deadly nightshade]. But it wasn’t a plant, in my sense of the word, it was a shrub, almost a tree, and as tall as I was. It looked the picture of evil and also the picture of health, it was so glossy and strong and juicy-looking: I could almost see the sap rising to nourish it. It seemed to have found the place in all the world that suited it best.
I came to dread these pleasantries, they seemed to spring up all around me like rows of gas-jets scorching me, and I turned redder than I was already. The frightful feeling of being marked out for ridicule came back in all its strength. I don’t think I was unduly sensitive; in my experience most people mind being laughed at more than anything else. What causes wars, what makes them drag on so interminably, than the fear of losing face?
My spiritual transformation took place in Norwich: it was there that, like an emerging butterfly, I was first conscious of my wings. I had to wait until tea for the public acknowledgement of my apotheosis. My appearance was greeted with cries of acclaim, as if the whole party had been living for this moment. Instead of gas-jets, fountains of water seemed to spring up around me. I was made to stand on a chair and revolve like a planet, while everything of my new outfit that was visible was subjected to admiring or facetious comment.
But the idea of goodness did attract me, for I did not regard it as the opposite of sin. I saw it as something bright and positive and sustaining, like the sunshine, something to be adored, but from afar.
The idea of the assembled Viscounts contained it for me, and the Maudsleys, as their viceroys, enjoyed it too, not so incontestably, but enough to separate them from other human beings. They were a race apart, super-adults, not bound by the same laws of life as little boys.
I was in love with the heat, I felt for it what the convert feels for his new religion…And without my being aware of it, the climate of my emotions had undergone a change. I was no longer satisfied with the small change of experience which had hitherto contented me. I wanted to deal in larger sums. I wanted to enjoy continuously the afflatus of spirit that I had when I was walking to Lord Trimingham and he admitted to being a Viscount. To be in tune with all that Brandham Hall meant, I must increase my stature, I must act on a grander scale. Perhaps all these desires had been dormant in me for years, and the Zodiac had been their latest manifestation.
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.
I gave him the envelope which at once he tore open; and then I knew he must have killed something before I came, for, to my horror, a long smear of blood appeared on the envelope and again on the letter as he held it in his hands.
I cried out: “Oh, don’t do that!” but he did not answer me, he was so engrossed in reading.
My world of high intense emotions collapsing around me, released not only the mental strain but the very high physical pressure under which I had been living. My only defence was, I could not have expected it of Marian. Marian who had done so much for me, Marian who knew how a boy felt, Marian the Virgin of the Zodiac—how could she have sunk so low?
I could not tell whether the next ball was on the wicket or not, but it was pitched much further up and suddenly I saw Ted’s face and body swinging round, and the ball, travelling towards me on a rising straight line like a cable stretched between us. Ted started to run and then stopped and stood watching me, wonder in his eyes and a wild disbelief.
“Phew! Three times I nearly had to cat…And you looked so pi, Leo, really dreadfully pi. So did everybody, while you were singing that church thing about the angels taking care of you. They all looked as if they were thinking about their dear dead ones, and Burgess looked as if he might be going to blub. Of course it’s difficult to know how Trimingham feels because of his face, but he didn’t half crack you up to Mama. He’ll eat out of your hand now.
I liked Ted burgess in a reluctant, half-admiring, half-hating way. When I was away from him I could think of him objectively as a working farmer whom no one at the Hall thought much of. But when I was with him his mere physical presence cast a spell on me, it established an ascendancy which I could not break. He was, I felt, what a man ought to be, what I should like to be when I grow up.
She was a fairy princess who had taken a fancy to a little boy, clothed him, petted him, turned him from a laughing stock into an accepted member of her society, from an ugly duckling into a swan. With one wave of her wand she hasd transformed him, at the cricket concert, from the youngest and most insignificant person present to a spell-bounder who had held them all in thrall. The transfigured Leo of the last twenty-four hours was her creation; and she had created him, I felt, because she loved him. And now, again like an enchantress, she had taken it all away and I was back where I had started from—no, much lower.
“Green, green mon pauvre imbécile, bright green...et savez-vous pourquoi? Parce que vous êtes vert vous-même—you are green yourself, as the poor old English say…it is your true colour, Marian said so.” And he began to dance around me, chanting “Green, green, green.”
Lady-killer: what did that mean? I didn’t like to ask too many questions. I did not think, however, Ted would kill Marian: Man-killer, that was what I had been afraid of. Now the fear had passed away, lost its reality with the rest of my life at Brandham Hall. I could scarcely believe that I had once felt I ought to warn Lord Trimingham of his peril. The ninth Viscount would never know that I had saved him from the fate of the fifth. By removing myself I had removed the danger: it was my master-stroke.
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. If also I had the sense of something giving way, inside me and outside, that was still better…but those were spells whose operation was confined to the world of my experience, the schoolboy world. I had never launched a spell against a grown-up person. My present victims were not only grown-ups, they belonged to the world from which my spells derived their power; I should be trying to turn their own weapons against them.
“No, you shall come,” she said, and seized my hand, and 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.
Tell him this, Leo, make him see it and feel it, it will be the best day’s work you ever did. Remember how you loved taking our messages, bringing us together and making us happy—well, this is another errand of love, and the last time I shall ever ask you to be our postman…Tell him there’s no spell or curse except an unloving heart.