Memory and Regret in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

In one of Abraham's several ruminations upon memory and time, he raises issues that the reader can resolve only at the novel's end, for one can only attempt to judge the narrator-protagonist after the book's final scene of reconciliation. Sounding the note of carpe diem, much like speakers in poems by Catullus, Jonson, Marlowe, Dinne, and Marvell, Abraham, who knows that he has only one life to live, regrets that he has lived so little -- if living is measured in hedonistic terms:

Beehives and cat's-eye glasses. Slim women in tight cheongsams. How can I not regret having known so few women? If nothing changes, if all that endures is the old and weary, hunched and diminished, then not to have lived more fully, to have read the works of philosophers when I could have danced, written articles when I could have ... could have what? I would not have known how to in any event. Few might have read my opinions, and none might now remember them, yet what else could I have done? Temperance, not desire, was in my nature. If I am to find meaning, it must lie in that, that careful planning of a life's work. That I may have fallen short is still no reason to lament a life undiverted by hedonistic pursuits. Perhaps the true value of a good life lies in its aim, not its trajectory.

One cannot help noticing that this passage changesdirection in mid-paragraph, for after sounding a note of regret, Abraham checks himself with the wise recognitions that he would nohave known how to go about acting hedonistically and that "temperance, not desire, was in my nature." Although many of Abraham's confidences to the reader diminish him in the eyes of the reader, this one seems to show him to be a person with admirable self-knowledge unwilling to deceive himself for very long.

Like any thought or action of Abraham's, such as description of his ageing books, his statement here functions at least in part to establish his character. It also has other functions as well, using details, for example, to locate him in a particular time. Take the phrase "beehives and cat's-eye glasses." By describing fashions in women's hair styles and eye wear from the narrator's past, it shows that he desires women from his past -- and that to some extent he still lives there -- and that he does not just desire women or love. "Beehives and cat's-eye glasses," in other words, emphasizes the degree to which the speaker regrets a particular past, a particular turning point.

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