The Go-Between is full of semi-supernatural elements, from Leo’s devotion to the zodiac, to the spells that he casts, to the more general constant sense that things are fated to go wrong. Hartley never takes an explicit stance on these elements: through the novel they simultaneously seem to be, on the one hand, real and powerful, and on the other just the delusions of a twelve-year-old boy. In treating these supernatural elements in this way, Hartley accomplishes a number of things: he portrays the way that a young boy understands (and fails to understand) the world; he captures the way in which Leo’s unique status in the story itself function as a kind of supernatural force that turns society on its head; and he conveys the ways in which the events that occur at Brandham Hall actually are fated and epic, though not in the way that Leo believes.
Given his age and upbringing, Leo has very little sway over or understanding of the adult world. The zodiac and Leo’s magic spells answer both of these needs: they give him a way to process the world around him (including his place in it), and to affect that world. For instance, before the main action of the book, when Leo casts spells on two bullies at school who then later fall off a roof, both Leo and his schoolmates come to see him as having magical abilities. Later in the book, Leo understands Marian’s attraction to Ted as a spell cast by the latter, one which he needs to counter with his own magic.
Leo also sees the world in terms of the zodiac: Marian is the Virgin, Ted is the Water-Carrier, and he thinks about what it means to be a proper man in terms of the zodiac signs of the Ram, the Bull, and the Lion. In his role as a go-between, he sees himself as a part of his personal zodiac pattern, as a kind of “messenger to the Gods”—a notion that is only intensified when Trimingham starts calling him “Mercury.” In seeing the adults as gods, it’s clear that he isn’t able to see them as actual human beings, with human desires, frailties, and complexities. Leo’s conception of the world is heroic and romantic, but also unreal. And when Leo, at the end of the book, is faced with reality—the “virgin” and the “water-carrier” having sex—he can’t handle it. Leo may briefly be able to move among the gods—at least his gods—but he is too young and naïve to survive unscathed. Just like the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun (another myth referenced in the novel), Leo’s proximity to powers beyond his comprehension, and desires beyond his experience, means that he, like, Icarus, is sure to crash.
Even as Leo’s belief in magic and zodiac-based understanding mark him as a naïve child, Hartley never explicitly marks either as being wrong. For instance, the possibility is left open throughout the book that it was Leo’s spell that caused the two bullies to fall off the roof. Throughout the novel, there hangs an implication that spells might exist and exert power in the actual adult world, and that Leo’s sense of a world determined by fate may also not be so farfetched, even as it doesn’t operate in the clean way that Leo imagines it does. The novel’s depiction of Marian and Ted is of two people who, despite knowing the social consequences, can’t stop their love. They aren’t the virgin and the water-carrier, but the novel presents them as no less fated for they humanity. And while the fates of the two lovers Marian and Ted may not be written in the stars as Leo believes, they are, in many ways, written in their characters and the social rules that define the world in which they live.
The novel’s use of fate—and the way that its lovers are doomed from the beginning—parallels countless other romantic tragedies, including Romeo and Juliet. These parallels link The Go-Between to a larger tradition and suggest that the same forces of conflicting love and social conventions that lead to the lovers’ ends in all of these tragedies are, in fact, universal to the human experience. It suggests, in other words, that such conflicts will always exist so long as there are people, and, by extension, that such tragedies are always fated to occur—that they are a part of the irreconcilable complexities of being human.
Fate, Myth, and Magic ThemeTracker
Fate, Myth, and Magic Quotes in The Go-Between
And the expansion and ascension, of some divine gas, which I believed to be the ruling principle of my own life, I attributed to the coming century. The year 1900 had an almost mystical appeal for me; I could hardly wait for it: “Nineeteen hundred, nineteen hundred,” I would chant to myself in rapture; and as the old century drew to its close, I began to wonder whether I should live to see its successor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To demonstrate my knowledge I began to tell her about the Deadly Nightshade, and then stopped. I found I did not want to speak about it. But she was only half listening.
“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.