Chance As A Concept Throughout Literature – English Essay
Chance (or coincidence) has an ambiguous role in the outcome of different situations; it can work in or against one’s favour. As in real life, chance in literature has considerable influence on the
circumstances of the characters and where those circumstances lead. In two particular literary works, Roman Fever and A Small, Good Thing, chance happenings have grave results on the lives of the characters concerned. In Roman Fever, old friends meet by chance and reveal disturbing secrets about the past; while in A Small, Good Thing a boy is injured on his birthday placing his parents in a desperate situation. Although chance generally seems to go unnoticed—a spontaneous purchase of candles, followed by a power failure—the impact it makes is often not so subtle.
Edith Wharton, author of Roman Fever, depicts two upper class women friends; one, Mrs. Slade, fiercely jealous of the other and the other, Mrs. Ansley, pitiful of her childhood friend. The depiction is real in that it epitomizes the American upper class wife—responsibilities include making the husband happy and entertaining his guests; a typical day may consists of shopping, lunch and the exchange of rumours with the other wives of other rich husbands; in essence, they waste away the time until the rich husband arrives home from work or until he makes a request. Mrs. Slade, in reflection, felt “a certain conjugal pride” about being such a wife (Wharton, 84). The most prominent aspect of such individuals presented by Wharton is the limit in which they will endeavour to undermine even a supposed friend to achieve an end, generally the richest husband. And, of course, with such rules of play, one needs all the luck the stars can afford.
Mrs. Grace Ansley and Mrs. Alida Slade, both widowed, who had met as young girls in Rome, were now, in the very spot they had met as girls, lunching together. The two old friends had not seen each other in years, but met again in a hotel in Rome where they were both vacationing with their respective daughters. Naturally, it seems, the two daughters develop a friendship. Such occurrences would otherwise be unfathomable if it was not for the precise meaning of chance; the unpredictable element in happenings that cannot be assigned a cause (Hougton Mifflin, 2000). Chance provides an understanding, not an explanation, and, hence, an acceptance of such occurrences. The chance meeting of these two old friends sets the stage for the revelation of secrets that were also influenced by the unexpected.
Knowing that Grace had romantic interest in her then fiancé, Mr. Delphin Slade, Alida writes a letter posing as Delphin inviting Grace to meet him after dark in the Coloseum. Alida had simply intended for her dear friend Grace to catch the roman fever and disappear for a few weeks until “[she] was sure of [Delphin],” (Wharton, 91). However, it was also revealed that the unexpected happened and Grace replied to the letter saying she would be there. Thus, Delphin arranged for the meeting to take place. Whether irony or bad luck, Mrs. Slade had blindly provided her fiancé with the opportunity to have an affair, one he gratefully accepted. If Grace had not replied to the letter, if, in fact, Alida had considered the possibility of her friend replying to the letter, then the meeting would never have happened, and, as was revealed, Mrs. Ansley would not have given birth to her present daughter because it was Mr. Slade who impregnated her, not Mr. Ansley. Still, it is difficult to place all this on one single factor, as it is in all cases of chance. It could also be argued that perhaps if Mrs. Slade was not so fiercely guarded against her friend then she would not have been driven to compose such a letter. Chance simply plays too big a role to be quantified.
Nonetheless, even the setting in which the friends presently find themselves is coincidental: both share fond memories of the same event that occurred in the Colosseum, but each memory is of an entirely different genre. While Mrs. Ansley looks back at it fondly as the place she courted the man she loved, Mrs. Slade looks at it laughably; seeing her friend waiting out in the cold for a love that never arrived. Both these views are unexpectedly shattered by the revelations the characters make: Mrs. Ansley discovers that the one true memory she held of her love does not exist and, so, she does not know if he truly loved her, for it was not Delphin who wrote the letter; Mrs. Slade discovers that the satisfaction she’s felt in winning Mr. Slade and finally beating Grace was all but a fantasy, for not only did her fiancé meet her friend that night, he also gave her a beautiful daughter, Barbara (Wharton, 93).
Further to this, the terrace where they stand reminiscing also happened to be the place where the two met as young girls. As Mrs. Slade commented, “It’s a view they’ve both been familiar with for a good many years” (Wharton, 82). Thus, it seemed a mutual setting for the two to not only to clear their consciences, but to see each other in the way they should have so many years before. So, in this way the ending seems just. For perhaps if they had really known each other as young girls there never would have been an attempt at friendship, thus, it would have ended right then and there. Instead, here the two were years after, ending it where it started and where it should have ended long ago. Indeed, chance cannot be quantified.
In another effect of chance, Raymond Carver, author of A Small, Good Thing, details the dramatic turn of two very different lives when an eight year old boy, Scotty, is hit by a car on his way to school on his birthday. One life affected, of course, is that of the parents, but the other is that of a baker, generally unaffected by the goings and comings of his customers, but in this instance, he was chosen to bake the cake for Scotty. And so it began.
While in the hospital waiting for their son to awake, it is decided that Howard will go home to shower and rest. While at home Howard receives a phone call regarding a cake that was not picked up, “A sixteen-dollar cake” to be precise (Carver, 307). Confused, Howard hangs up the phone. Later, after his return to the hospital, he tells Ann about the call (Ann had been the one who ordered the cake), but he neglected to mention that the caller had asked about a cake, instead he told her it was just someone with nothing else better to do (Carver, 307). It is this chance miscommunication that leads to the subsequent phone calls from, what appeared to be, someone evil. Had Howard mentioned that the caller asked about a cake, Ann would have most likely realized that it was the old baker. Thus, avoiding the future disturbing phone calls and the angry visit they made to see the baker.
After being reassured by Dr. Francis—a stereotypical rich, handsome doctor—that there was still hope and that all the tests were negative, Ann decided to go home. On her way out, she is unable to find the elevator and encounters a family in the waiting room. The father explained that his son, Franklin, had been stabbed and was in surgery and Ann explained her son had been hit by a car. The accidental encounter with this family allowed Ann to see that she was neither alone in circumstance or in pain. Short thereafter, the death of Franklin enabled her to infer and prepare for the possibilities with her own son.
Fittingly, after returning to her child, Scotty awakes briefly and then dies. What he dies of Dr. Francis called a “hidden occlusion…a one in-a-million circumstance” (Carver, 319). Perhaps it was hatched by the hit-and-run driver to seek out and run down a boy named Scotty on his eighth birthday and inflict the rare circumstance of a hidden occlusion, whereby he would die only after both his parents were at his side. Otherwise, chance can be credited. But, what of the seemingly dispassionate baker only concerned with collecting his sixteen dollars. Of all the bakers in town, Ann chooses this one. Surely if she had any indication of this man’s nature she would have sought out another. But, this decision, though haunting at first, turns out to be a beneficial one.
From this seemingly evil man they receive the honest compassion they sought in Dr. Francis. Dr. Francis had continued with his false reassurances almost up to the very moment of Scotty’s death, creating false hope in Howard and Ann. But, the baker did not create any kind of façade; he admitted his mistake after learning of their loss, apologized emphatically, and then gave them something to eat. Ann’s chance selection not only benefited her and Howard in the end, it also advantaged the baker; an otherwise lonely man was given the opportunity to disclose his story. Essentially, the baker and the parents were able to fulfill each other’s longing for understanding and comfort. Thus, had Howard mentioned to Ann from the first phone call that the man was talking about a cake, this opportunity may have been missed.
Yet, it is perhaps chance insincerity that has the most influence on the lives of the characters. Ultimately, it provided the parents and the baker the opportunity to speak. After all, if the baker was in fact sociably mannered, he would not have conducted himself in such a way on the phone; in other words, he may have been able to communicate himself effectively without upsetting the parents. But, had that happened, the visit from the parents would not have been necessary. Similarly, had the driver of the car stopped after hitting the boy or had he called an ambulance, Scotty’s life may have been saved. This is particularly noteworthy because normal protocols in such a severe situation were ignored by the driver. Further to that, had the doctor been more straightforward with the parents, the trauma may have been lessoned or more might have been undertaken to save Scotty. All in all, the deviation from standard courtesy contributed to the state of Ann’s and Howard’s life, as well as to the lonely baker’s.
The outcome in each of the above stories is one that begins with a chance occurrence. Chance seems to create a kind of chain reaction that slowly winds its way to a conclusion which leads to another conclusion; whether good or bad depends heavily on luck. In the case of Roman Fever, it seemed to have played an equally destructive role in the lives of Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade. But in A Small, Good Thing, while its effects were tragic; it also had a few positive implications. However, the same aspect of chance holds true in both cases: though its effects rarely go unnoticed, its role in events almost always do. If it were at all anticipatory Alida would have pondered the possibility of Grace responding to the letter and Ann would have dropped her son at school that day. Indeed, if chance were predictable it would loose its very nature; its swaying force would be futile and life would go on otherwise unruffled.
Carver, Raymond. “A Small, Good Thing.” A Pocket Anthology: Third Ed. R.S. Gwynn. New York: Longman, 2002. 304-326.
“Chance.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. www.atomica.com.
Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever.” A Pocket Anthology: Third Ed. 81-93.