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Principles of Narrative and Principles of Science in Stoppard’s ‘arcadia’

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Arcadia, written in 1993 by Tom Stoppard, is concerned with the relationship between order and disorder, past and present, and certainty and uncertainty. The action is split between two timelines unravelling in a room of an English manor house, Sidley Park, almost two hundred years apart. The first narrative depicts the bright daughter of the estate, Thomasina Coverly, who is tutored by Septimus Hodge in 1809. Whilst, in 1933, scholars Hannah Jarvis, Bernard Lightingale, and Valentine Coverly try to piece together the history of the estate from Thomasina’s annotations. Stoppard alternates between both these narratives as well as two timelines. This non-linear narrative tackles a vast array of scientific subjects, including thermodynamics, fractals, and chaos theory.

First of all, it is my stance that Mathematics and Science play a fundamental role in Arcadia. Stoppard takes contemporary Science as his subject matter. This can be seen through the fact that the characters’ lives revolve around Science. For instance, Thomasina’s scientific curiosity is shown from Scene 1. Even while eating her rice pudding she attempts to find scientific explanations for the world around her. In fact, something similar happens to Valentine when he wonders where cream disappears to once added to a cup of coffee, claiming it to be “(…) as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks” (Scene 4). In addition, the aforementioned paradoxes of the play are displayed through the discourse of Science. Also, greater truths about humanity and social matters in general are revealed through the study of different theorems.

The relationship between human situations and scientific principles can be easily seen throughout the play. Arcadia certainly references many scientific principles through the metaphorical use of Science and Mathematics. There are three metaphorical threads that can be followed in the play: “the action of bodies in heat”, which refers to thermodynamics; the unpredictable and the predetermined, which make reference to chaos theory, and plotting and iteration, which are also related to chaos and mathematics. These ideas are explored by many of the characters, particularly by Thomasina, and they all relate to the description of the disorder and irregularity of systems.

Thomasina’s first discovery, the second law of thermodynamics, is glimpsed in Scene 1 and confirmed in Scene 7. Briefly, this law states that the energy in the universe is gradually moving towards disorder. What is more, this law imposes a direction on to time: whereas every other physical law would work the same whether time was going forwards or backwards, this is not true for the second law of thermodynamics. Thomasina points this out when she states that Newton’s equations can go forwards or backwards, but the “heat equation” can only go in one direction. She manages to explain thermodynamics in familiar terms, by stating that “You cannot stir things apart”, which reinforces the idea that Science plays a leading role in the characters’ everyday life. This appears to be the strength of Thomasina’s scientific thinking, she can think about complex ideas in familiar terms.

Moreover, there is a hidden metaphor in Thomasina’s discovery. When she confirms her intuition concerning the second law of thermodynamics in Scene 7, her wording is ambiguous. When her mother asks her what she is studying, she describes it as “The action of bodies in heat”, despite having read an essay referring to the same phenomenon as the “propagation of heat in a solid body”. Thomasina’s wording is not na?ve, for she noticed that Lady Croom had been playing the piano passionately with Count Zelinsky. Once again, this shows how Science is used metaphorically to refer to human situations. On another note, the increase of disorder is also embodied by the garden, which loses its order due to the work of Mr. Noakes. Apart from that, the second law of thermodynamics is at work throughout the play, causing degradation rather than progression: Thomasina is going to die and the researchers are having trouble finding information. Arcadia demonstrates this law in relation to time; Stoppard alternates two time periods in a way which challenges physics. There is initial order between the scenes, until the last scene in which the two periods are shown simultaneously. The play itself is driven by this law, it acts like a “body in heat”.

Another metaphorical thread in Arcadia can be seen through Valentine’s ambiguous discourse while investigating chaos theory. This theory is a branch of mathematics focused on the behaviour of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. In his discourse, Valentine points out how theories only describe the “very big and the very small” (Scene 4). As far as I am concerned, Valentine is hinting that human situations, even the fate of the characters of the play, are also related to Mathematics and theorems. He is implicitly saying that even the most insignificant things can have great impact.

Similarly, Chloe manages to connect Science to ordinary human situations in Scene 7. Here, she expresses that people may fancy people they are not supposed to fancy, so this breaks Newton’s law. Newton’s laws and the laws of gravity supported the idea that the universe functioned like a clock, and everything that happened in The Earth or in The Solar System could be predicted and explained. Newton’s explanation of the universe adheres to determinism, which can be briefly described as the belief that all events, including thought, are caused by previous circumstances and that people have no real ability to make choices or control what happens. However, Stoppard manages to confront Newton’s theory through Chloe’s ideas, and connect physics to human feelings.

Finally, the last metaphorical thread of interest here refers to the relationship between plotting and iteration and the structure of the play. In mathematics, the action of plotting is a translation of written symbols into visual representation: once plotted, an equation becomes a graph. When Thomasina announces that she will “plot this leaf and deduce its equation” in Scene 3, she reverses this process. The way I see it, this concept is related to the way Stoppard wrote the play, alternating between two narratives, going back and forth in a non-linear manner. On the one hand, Arcadia’s plot tackles ideas like disorder or chaotic behaviour. On the other, these ideas provide us with patterns through which we can interpret the play. Iteration in mathematics refers to the process of iterating a function i.e. applying a function repeatedly, using the output from one iteration as the input to the next. This matter is explored by Valentine and Hannah, and I believe the ambiguity regarding this subject relies upon the fact that Arcadia has a series of recurring topics mostly revolving around sex, literature, science, and gardening. Not only are the characters firmly linked to Science, but so is the underlying structure of the narrative.

Although Science is used to explore ordinary matters like stirring a cup of coffee, it is also used to pose the most profound questions humans can ask themselves. The characters are constantly wondering about extinction and the fate of humanity. An example of this is when Valentine explains to Hannah that the world is doomed (Scene 5). Here we can see how Stoppard’s use of Science is double-edged. It is used to describe the most mundane situations, but it is also the trigger of extremely profound questions.

Stoppard’s play does not portrait scientific concepts as something secondary. It does not encourage a reductive and vague application of science and mathematics, but it gives theorems and scientific laws the leading role. This can be seen throughout the entire play, but it is particularly reflected in one of Hannah’s lines. In Scene 7, she states that “it’s wanting to know that makes us matter”. As far as I am concerned, this statement implies that curiosity and critical thinking gives meaning to our lives, and it justifies the characters’ hunger for knowledge, reinforcing the importance of Science once again. Taking everything into account, Science and Mathematics are the foundations of Arcadia. They are present from the first scene until the last, dictating the fate of the characters, structuring the narrative, and taking part of the characters’ everyday life. What is more, not only does Stoppard follow scientific laws, but he also defies them: Chloe’s ideas abrogate Newton’s laws.


Jha, A. (1/12/2013) What is the second law of Thermodynamics? [Blog] The Guardian. Retreived from:

Chaos theory


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