Through the various relationships that it portrays, The Go-Between explores the nature of romantic human relationships with the larger social world. Through the specific affair between Marian and Ted, the novel suggests that passionate romantic love is too strong to be constrained by social conventions. Through the devastating end to that relationship, however, the novel also makes clear that those same social conventions can’t be held at bay for long, even by love. More broadly, as Leo is exposed to different ideas about love, sex, and marriage, and fails to reconcile them, The Go-Between is able to show how these different ideas—marriage as an institution versus love as passion and emotion—are in fact not reconcilable. The rising pressure that Leo feels about these ideas stands in for an actual pressure in society, which explodes with the revelation of the upper class Marian’s affair with the lower class Ted.
Hartley presents marriage in late-Victorian/Edwardian society as a predominantly institutional arrangement, suggesting that it is an activity more governed by practicality, convenience, and social and economic status than love or emotion. Mr. and Mrs. Maudsley, the only married couple in the book, do not show one another any signs of affection. When Mr. and Mrs. Maudsley arrange for Marian to marry Lord Trimingham, they are not concerned with whether Marian loves him, but rather with the practical benefits of their potential marriage. Lord Trimingham is the owner of the Brandham Hall estate and, therefore, marrying Marian to him would secure the Maudsleys’ living standards and social standing.
Even Marian knows that she should marry Lord Trimingham. Her engagement to him is a fact of life to which she has acquiesced—in part because she recognizes that it will help her family, and in part because she knows it will ensure her own comfort and security. But Leo’s lack of understanding reveals the inherent weakness in this conception of marriage. For instance, after he learns of Marian and Lord Trimingham’s engagement, Leo assumes that this means the end of his role as go-between for Marian and Ted. It never occurs to him that the affair might continue; he can’t imagine that love and physical attraction might continue to exist after an engagement. What’s interesting here is that while Leo immediately comes across as hopelessly naïve in this moment, the institution of marriage is built on the similarly naïve foundation that marriages of social convenience can withstand the buffets of love.
Even more mysterious to Leo than love is sex, which he euphemistically calls “spooning.” Once again, Leo’s naiveté about sex allows the novel to explore the subject, as Leo’s innocent questions reveal deeper truths and complexities. Neither Leo nor Marcus know anything about sex, and don’t understand why anyone would get involved with “spooning.” At one point Leo comments, “I’m sure your sister doesn’t spoon, she’s got too much sense.” On the one hand, Leo’s comment here is just plain ridiculous: lots of “sensible” people have sex. However, at the same time, Leo’s idea that sex isn’t sensible—that it is irrational—is also something that, given the events of the rest of the story with its passionate and destructive affair, can’t be dismissed. Leo’s simplistic belief, then, may suggest a deeper truth. Leo may not actually be wrong in his idea that sex is irrational. Rather, he is wrong in his sense that Marian—or, really, almost anyone—is sensible when it comes to sex and physical attraction.
After Leo becomes a go-between for Marian and Ted and starts to understand that their “business” letters are in fact love letters, he becomes increasingly curious about sex. He repeatedly asks Ted to tell him about “spooning” because he senses that Ted knows about it. In one conversation, Leo questions Ted on whether you could marry someone without spooning them first. In response, Ted argues that sex before marriage is natural, and that love should, naturally, be paired with sex. In late-Victorian/Edwardian times, which prized female virginity and purity and promoted abstention from sex until marriage, these are radical ideas. At the same time, to a modern reader, it seems pretty normal to see things Ted’s way: that romantic love and sex are perfectly natural, regardless of marital status.
Leo responds to Ted’s ideas by thinking: “Natural! So spooning was natural! I had never thought of that. I had thought of it as a kind of game that grown-ups played.” But he doesn’t seem to truly accept Ted’s argument about the naturalness of sex. When he is confronted with the reality of Ted and Marian having sex, his interior world is brought crashing down in a way that suggests that Leo (like Mrs. Maudlsey, whom he is with) perceives what is happening as sinful and terrible. He then spends the rest of his life avoiding or repressing emotion entirely.
The Go-Between doesn’t suggest that love and sex are always incompatible with the institution of marriage. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a socially-arranged marriage that also involves love and sexual attraction. But the novel does make clear that institutional marriage on the one hand and love and sex on the other are also completely different social forces, motivated by and motivating different goals and behaviors—and that these differences can create conflicts that lead to destructive results. Even at the book’s close, as old Leo visits the elderly Marian, she refuses to see the affair as purely tragic, and implores Leo to tell her grandson that her relationship with Ted was “nothing to be ashamed of … the most beautiful thing.” Leo, still traumatized by what happened at Brandham Hall and after living a life in which he has closed himself off to all emption, can only see Marian’s positive reflections on the past as “self-deception.” And yet, “half-wishing” to see things as she does, he goes on the errand for her and returns to Brandham Hall as the go-between for one last message of love.
Love, Sex, and Marriage ThemeTracker
Love, Sex, and Marriage 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.
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 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.
“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?”
I thought I did and since so many barriers between us were being overturned I added—it seemed only logical:
“But why are you going to marry Hugh if you don’t want to?”
“Because I must marry him,” she said. “You wouldn’t understand. I must. I’ve got to!” Her lips trembled and she burst into tears.
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.