Christopher and Sylvia, sad sad sad

Thus far I have neglected Sylvia Tietjens, certainly the juiciest character in Parade’s End, in favor of her boring meal-sack of a husband. But as strange as it sounds, I believe Sylvia is not unlike the War Office.

I mentioned yesterday that the British bureaucracy had a knowledge problem: they cannot know all the information they need to know to make the decisions necessary to central planning on this scale. Sylvia has the same problem, but applied to her machinations against Christopher.

Motivations aside, Sylvia’s mission in life is to hurt her husband. She directs all her energies outward, towards other people, attempting to manipulate them into doing what she wants—anything from having affairs with her to hurting her husband’s career—to accomplish this goal. And in Some Do Not, she appears spectacularly successful. No More Parades reveals how much trouble Sylvia actually has at her sinister game.

For example, when we get her version of running off with Perowne years before, it turns out it was anything but an enjoyable fling with the side benefit of hurting Christopher. Sylvia actually shows how awful she is at planning anything. She can’t predict that Perowne will turn out to be a terrible bore, she fails to foresee that he might attempt to keep her or do violence to her, she hadn’t realized that if she wasn’t very particular scandal might land at her own doorstep, and she did not anticipate Christopher’s reaction to any of it. Just about all of her cunning plans turn out not to be very cunning, and it’s usually because Sylvia has no ability to predict the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of the other players.

Christopher sometimes struggles to counter her moves, especially when his thoughts are impaired. He faces the knowledge problem too, but his job is easier. Where all Sylvia’s energy is directed outward, trying to elicit some kind of action from others, Christopher’s efforts point inward. He absorbs, using himself as a cushion for any shock that would hurt his wife, his family, Miss Wannop, Macmaster, or anyone else he respects. He never attempts to stir a situation himself, to set in motion something that will evoke particular reactions from other, independent players. He works on the fly, just like with his army orders, countering the moves of Sylvia and her friends one by one, by being personally upstanding and by not depending on missing information about the minds of his acquaintances.

His desire to protect the hearth is much more easily accomplished than hers to orchestrate a complicated campaign against him. But Christopher is also more adept in general. He is often able to understand the motives of others, while Sylvia can only grasp such things after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight. She didn’t even know her own husband spoke fluent, if bizarre, French—but as soon as she finds out her does, she’s able to put the pieces together in reverse and understand why it all makes sense. But as she can never manage that ahead of time, her schemes seem doomed to fail.

4 comments to Christopher and Sylvia, sad sad sad

  • What a fantastic piece on Sylvia – the most mysterious characher in Parade’s End. I agree with your conclusion that her schemes are fundamentally flawed and she herself does not seem as capable as Christopher – but maybe she will just wear him down?

    Really pleased to discover that you are taking part in this read along and to discover your blog


  • Sylvia is a fascinating character-partial knowledge is one of the deeper themes of Parade’s End, I think-I am really glad you are taking part in this read long

  • nicole

    Hannah—thanks, and thanks for stopping by. Sylvia is awful, but she’s also intriguing.

    Mel—yes, partial knowledge is huge throughout. Something I’m really enjoying. And thanks for organizing!

  • I enjoyed your contrasts of the characters of Christopher and Sylvia a lot-the more I think about it the more it seems telling on the themes of the book-