Explore the varied ways in which Rose Tremain presents the situation and its possible impact on the reader. You should support your answer with close reference to the text.
The entire passage contains just one scene, and contains a balance of dialogue and descriptions. It begins with an ominous description describing Celia “wrapped up in a cloak”, as “her long hair fell loose on her face, like a curtain”. These images have connotations of darkness and suffering, and foreshadows the atmospheric qualities of the scene that are to follow. By using images of a “lighted candle” and descriptions of the coldness, Tremain effectively draws in the reader and creates an ambiance of ambiguity as to the events and speech that is to follow.
Celia speaks to the narrator in whispers of “great urgency” and tells him that “Your bird is dying”, which accentuates to the bleak atmosphere already created. We learn from Celia that the narrator is a physician, and that only he can save the bird. This contributes to the sense of danger, and we realise that the narrator is integral to the plot.
We are made aware of the time period when we learn that the narrator “forgot to wind [his] timepiece”, as well as the fact that he works for the King. Tremain hints at tension when she writes, “if I had been the King, I would have had a diversity of clocks to choose from”. The narrator writes this in brackets perhaps because it is an obvious fact, yet he chooses to state it anyway, which could be a sign of resentment or even mocking at the King’s wealth, as opposed to the squalor in which the narrator lives in, where the night is “so cold that [he] can see [his] breath by the candle.” This image contributes to the sense of discomfort in which the narrator lives, and the candle imagery is sustained from before. This alerts the reader to perhaps later danger, as the fire has links with danger.
The word “candle” is repeated again, as Celia is said to have “fled” from the room. Again, this sustains the tension and pace of the extract, as well as prefiguring the upcoming violence. We are then taken into the narrators thoughts regarding Celia, “I wondered why in the world Celia had been looking at my bird in this peculiar hour”, and we as the reader feel that something is not right. However, when the narrator reveals “I was more puzzled by this than filled with worry for my bird”, we come to realise that the narrator has strong feelings towards Celia, and in this passage, there will be three players – Merivel, Celia, and the nightingale.
In describing the nightingale, Tremain uses language of vulnerability to evoke the pain felt by it, such as “fallen over” and “feebly flapping.” It can be argued that like the poor conditions in which Merivel lives, the bird is equally poor and weak. However, amidst the bird suffering, “legs in the air”, it is interesting that the narrator’s focus is with Celia, “I was so utterly astonished that she should appear to care so much”, showing that his feelings for her overtake his regard for the pet. This adds an extra psychological edge to the passage, and it is interesting that in a time where his pet is suffering, the narrator feels “astonishment” as his primary emotion.
Tremain successfully conveys the suffering felt by the nightingale through the usage of colour imagery, especially in showing how it was and how it is – the “clouded” eye, usually “bright” and “marigold”. Further compassion is felt for the nightingale when the narrator asserts, “I know not what is to be done”, which suggests the futility in attempting to aid him. Merivel, who concentrates on his own shortcomings, “Starved of sleep”, he seems to show a surprising lack of interest in the nightingale, and this is contrasted starkly to Celia’s urgent worry – “Then try something! Get out your instruments!”
Ironically, it is Celia’s urgency that inspires Merivel to save the nightingale. We as the audience see his thought processes, “If I could save the bird, I would no doubt earn a little respect from her”, and his intentions are apparent. It is now that the action truly begins, and Tremain marks this with a litany of objects- “I returned with a strong physic, a senna and rhubarb preparation, some linen bandages.”
Tremain marks out Celia as different from the stereotypes of women in the time when she shows her stronger qualities – “Celia did not flinch.” It is likely that these are the type of qualities that drew the narrator to her. In the description of saving the bird, the imagery of light is uses once again – “we worked by three candles”, to accentuate the “shadowy” conditions in which Merivel is working in, as well as, perhaps his “shadowy” knowledge of the bird’s physiology. This creates a sense of impending doom, not only for the fate of the bird, but for Merivel as well.
Bizarrely, the narrator comments that “A stranger entering the room would have assumed that we were at cards or dice”, as the tension conjured in this scene could easily be present in a game of cards or dice. However, the scenario here is completely different. The nightingale is described to “kicked its legs”, but calms itself once within Celia’s hands. This suggests that she bears peaceful characteristic, which again could be something that attracts her to the narrator. Celia also reveals that “[she] is concerned for the bird, for if it should die, [she] cannot but feel some misfortune that may follow”, which shows her to be practical. This also raises the question to the audience as to what the misfortune may be.
Celia believes the nightingale to be a gift from the King, when we learn that it was in fact a bribe, and not from the King. This somewhat justifies the apathetic attitude that Merivel has shown the nightingale. Merivel interestingly chooses not to correct Celia about where the nightingale comes from, because he “did not wish Celia to desert me in the middle of it”, showing that our previous suspicions about Merivels’ feelings toward Celia may indeed be correct.
Tremain then reveals some technical information about the scene, and the description of the blood-letting is highly evocative, with short, staccato words describe the process. The lack of hope felt by Merivel and Celia is apparent, through words such as “anxiety”, “piteously” and “exceedingly tragic.” By now, the audience should feel pathos toward both the nightingale and the two attending it. A particularly haunting image used is “Celia picked it up and held it close to her face, trying to feel its heartbeat.” This evokes ideas of birth and a human dying, and intensifies the tragedy of this scene.
After this attempt to save the nightingale comes time for reflection. Celia asks Merivel a question that clearly touches a nerve, and it leads to a heated conversation, so much so that Merivel tells us “I shall spare you the little discourse that followed”, one that left him “deeply vexed.” However, even in his feelings of annoyance, he “does not wish to wound Celia.”