Burkhard Niederhoff (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘The Road not Taken: Stevenson’s “Will o’ the Mill” and the Motif of the Unlived Life’

The proposed paper deals with the motif of the unlived life, which we find, in its most characteristic version, in works like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. In both of these, old men review their lives with anger and regret, pondering the roads they have not taken and the relationships they have not embarked upon.

The first significant occurrence of the motif in English Literature that I am aware of is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. For the first hundred pages, Anne Elliott has to deal with the painful knowledge of not having accepted Captain Wentworth’s proposal (after this retrospective focus on a missed opportunity the novels shifts to the usual, prospective focus on an opportunity that is still to be taken, to the question whether Anne and the Captain will get married). Full-blown treatments of the motif, however, in which the retrospective focus on a road not taken is maintained throughout an entire text, seem to emerge only in the late 19th century, Henry James’ ‘Diary of a Man of Fifty’ being an early example. The reason for this may be that the motif combines two tendencies that are characteristic of 20th century literature: (1) a pessimistic emphasis on failure; (2) the rejection of plot (the unlived life takes place in the mind of the characters or in symbolic references, with little or no external action).

Stevenson, the apologist of romance and adventure, would appear to be the last writer to take an interest in this motif. Surprisingly, he offers us an intriguing treatment of the unlived life in his allegorical tale ‘Will o’ the Mill’. In my paper, I will locate the position of this tale in the history of the motif, discussing whether and how it participates in the 20th century tendencies mentioned above.

Categorized as Abstracts

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