In The Ice Age, Margaret Drabble switches to a male self-actalization story. When we first meet Anthony Keating, he seems relatively lucky compared to his acquaintances. After all, Keating has survived possible fraud charges and London bombings. Additionally, he is happily accompanied by his lover Alison in his newly acquired country home, despite his loss of fortune. Others around him are not so lucky. Len Winocbank is incarcerated for shading dealings, Kitty’s husband has been killed and Kitty has been maimed in a random London bombing, and Alison’s daughter Jane has been imprisoned in some hostile (toward Britain) country for causing a fatal accident. Anthony suffers for his friends and for himself. In Job-like fashion, he sees God as a tester of faith, who needn’t have bothered.
There is much concern in the novel about the decline of Britain. I won’t be treating that except to say that Anthony’s decline parallels his nation’s and is the novel’s ultimate focus.
Typically Drabble, the story presents human frailty, forgives human frailty, and surmounts human frailty. This is what I love about Drabble. Nodding my head in recognition of one character’s neurosis and another’s guilt, I am ultimately challenged that I ought to progress to a healthy (enough) emotional state while improving someone else’s life. Such is the self-actualization of Anthony Keating. He moves from paranoia over possible corruption charges, irritation with Alison’s older daughter’s recklessness, disappointment in country living, loss of his mentor, and his best friend’s betrayal to jeopardizing his life and freedom for someone else’s life and freedom. From self-pity to drunkenness to bravery, Anthony Keating is left imprisoned in a politically chaotic country, left to ponder his (and the novel’s original) concern about the divine and morality. Reading Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, Anthony writes—not his prison memories—but his inspection of the possible existence and roles of God in his life: “He cannot evade the idea that God has given him the chance to work out the first causes and the last causes, and that he must not reject it” (285). Accepting that “freedom is a mixed blessing” and imprisonment affords him, probably for the first time in his life, the opportunity for “enforced contemplation,” Anthony self-examines: “He cannot bring himself to believe in the random malice of the fates, those three grey sisters. He is determined, alone, to justify the ways of God to man.” The novel has returned to Job but instead of adopting Job’s disinterested self-righteousness, Anthony questions the very existence of God. But not for long. One of the Ambassador’s gifts is a book about the nation’s birds. During his half hour’s break outside, Anthony sees “a rare bird, a wonder, a bird that, as he knows from his book, rarely visits below the snow line…” (286-287). It will leave soon, he realizes. But during its brief and unexpected visit, Anthony believes in God: “It is, he thinks a messenger from God, an angel, a promise. I think these things because I am high on suffering, he tells himself, but nevertheless his heart rises, he experiences hope. He experiences joy. The bird will fly off, fluttering away its tiny life. There, we leave Anthony” (287). Anthony will make the best of his unjust imprisonment, living the self-examined life after saving another’s life. He will make himself a more thoughtful and more deliberate human being.
Drabble concludes her novel with one more paragraph. “Alison, there is no leaving. Alison can neither live nor die. Alison has Molly. Her life is beyond imagining. It wll not be imagined. Britain will recover, but not Alision Murray” (287) Alison, the mother of a mentally challenged daughter, is doomed. Although her older daughter, Jane, has returned safely from imprisonment and civil war in a volatile country, thanks to Anthony, Alison is paralyzed. For her, there is no hope of self-actualizing. Why not? She is beautiful, has financial resources, and is greatly admired as a mother. But none of that makes for self-actualizing. Unlike Anthony, she reacts to life without reflection and responsibility. She abandons others during tough times, claiming (repeatedly) that she can’t be split in two.
With her hopelessness, the novel ends. Not with Anthony’s epiphany.The Ice Age attempts to leave us with a confrontational ending (See Mariana Torgovnick.), rather than an heroic inspiration. The warning, I suppose is that selfishness is unforgivable and self-defeating.
By contrast, Anthony fulfills all three requirements for self-actualizing. 1. In his solitude, he self-reflects and self-examines. 2. He rejects the company of unsavory inmates despite the possible danger that rejection may produce. 3. He contributes to bettering the lives of others and establishing healthy relationships: he practices the guitar with a fellow inmate, he entertains others upon requests, and he has given up his freedom for Jane’s—a person he has never liked but for whom he has become sympathetic.
Like Anthony, who never asks for news about England, Drabble recommends that we forget about politics and nation blaming. Rather, we should, first and foremost, take stock of our own lives and relationships by deliberately self-isolating in order to reevaluate our values. Moreover, we should give joy to others, even in the simplest ways.
Do we hear Thoreau’s “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.”? No. Drabble—unlike Thoreau—advocates slowing down and simplifying our lives not just for our lives but for others. Anthony Keating more accurately resembles the imprisoned Boethius who creates Dame Philosophy in order to understand his suffering but also worries about his father-in-law being tortured and his family left behind. Self-concern—for Drabble and Boethius—must never override social responsibility.
Anthony Keating is no hero, not really. He admits to himself that he tries to save Jane because he is intrigued with the spy operation of it all. However, once caught in the espionage web, he blames no one and refashions his outlook on imprisonment as a gift—a time with few options (distractions) and great self-actualizing opportunities.
Might we close The Ice Age with a resolution to slow down and appreciate the brief visitors we encounter without expectations or guarantees for the future?