A Soul's Schism
Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow can essentially be classified as a novel about the Holocaust, yet Amis’s style sets it apart from other novels within this genre. Told backwards, the story begins with a Nazi doctor’s death and proceeds towards his birth. Amis employs an unnamed narrator to accompany his main character, Tod / Odilo / John / Hamilton. This alter ego is aware of Tod, but Tod is not aware of him. Through this narrator and the disjointed form of the novel, Amis applies his ergodic style by forcing the reader to become an active participant in the story. The reader’s relation to the confused narrator ensures continuation of reading. This style allows the reader to experience Tod’s guilt-driven abortions, the narrator’s confusion, and the schism between the two identities. This separation within the main character serves as Amis's commentary of the moral and ethical detachment required by Nazi doctors in order to cope with the atrocities they inflicted.
The guilt of the main character presents itself most notably in his outlook toward babies. He has a healthy marriage and normal outlook toward children in his youth, but after his work as a Nazi doctor, his outlook towards children drastically changes. He dreams of a baby who “wields incredible power” yet despite the power it wields, the baby is weeping. Perhaps it weeps because of the sinister reversal—the new and desperate responsibilities that power brings” (45). The baby represents the future to Tod. This baby will grow up knowing what atrocities he has performed and because “the baby is more like a bomb” it must be detonated (i.e. aborted) (46). Whenever any of the main character’s “lady friends” becomes pregnant, “a rectangular placenta and a baby about half an inch long with a heart but no face [is] implanted with the aid of the forceps and speculum”(91). Because of the backward action of the novel, his actions are actually those of abortions. The narrator concludes “that these are the bomb babies of Tod Friendly’s dreams. It adds up. The babies, so to speak, are helplessly powerful. This is the power they wield: the mortal importance of no one knowing they are there” (91). This acknowledgement confirms Tod’s guilt regarding his actions as a Nazi doctor with his desire to prevent any continuation of his life via a child.
While Tod is determined to prevent any of his children from being born, a separate identity is “born” within him. The narrator says that “I’m like the baby taken from the toilet. I have a heart but I don’t have a face: I don’t have any eyes to cry. Nobody knows I’m here” (92). Amis repeats the aborted baby's description for the narrator to emphasize the blurred, intermingled perceptions of death and life present throughout the story. The narrator has no power over Tod but acknowledges himself as an extension. He knows that “into Tod’s mind, of course, I cannot see. But I am the hidden sharer of his body” (55). Tod does not acknowledge this other identity. Any acknowledgment on Tod's behalf would require personal introspection and acceptance of the horrors he has committed. The narrator believes Tod’s “isolation is complete. Because he doesn’t know I’m here” (14). Amis’s use of the narrator makes the reader question if he is Tod’s subconscious or if Tod suffers from a form of dementia, possibly schizophrenia. The narrator, however, identifies himself as Tod’s soul. The conversations with Irene “put it best—she certainly puts it most often—when she tells Tod that he has no soul. I used to take it personally, and I was wretched at first” (53). The narrator’s personal offense to Irene’s accusation of Tod having no soul most thoroughly outlines the schism of Tod and the narrator. Tod’s personality is itself soulless, while the unacknowledged narrator identifies himself as Tod’s soul. This separation gives readers an understanding of how Tod handles his guilt by compartmentalization and repression.
The narrator exists as a way for Tod to separate himself from his actions and also to protect him. The narrator’s responsibility in preventing Tod from killing himself is first addressed by the narrator with “suicide isn’t an option, is it. Not in this world. Once you’re here, once you’re on board, you can’t get off. You can’t get out” (25). The narrator becomes even more sure of the fact that suicide is not an option as the story progresses. There is no longer the questioning undertone in regards to killing oneself when the narrator states that “you can’t end yourself, not here. I am familiar with the idea of suicide. Once life is running, though, you can’t end it. You’re not at liberty to do that” (88). The narrator controls the fact that Tod cannot end his life. Amis suggests with this inability of Tod to commit suicide, that Tod does acknowledge morality. No matter his agency over other human life, Tod draws the line with taking his own.
The schism between the main character and the narrator allows Tod to proceed with his unethical life. He closes off all emotion and morals, forcing the narrator to make sense of the actions. The narrator's confusion allows for an ergodic experience on the part of the reader. The narrator supplies pieces of a puzzle that both he and readers try to discern along the way. One of Tod’s weekly nightmares involves “this enormous figure in the white coat, his black boots straddling many acres. Somewhere down there, between his legs, the line of souls. I wish I had the power, just power enough to avert my eyes. Please, don’t show me the babies…” (39). Neither the narrator nor the reader can look away, while both question who the figure is. Later in the story, readers are given the answer when it is revealed that “John Young, who daily straddles a storm of souls, which kick up in the wind like leaves” (91). The story's unraveling and slow dispersal of clues joins the narrator and the reader on a voyage of discovery encouraging acceptance of the fact that the whole truth is not constantly revealed. The reader must work alongside the narrator to understand the story of Tod’s life out
The ergodic style Amis incorporates in Time’s Arrow allows the reader to experience more personally the actions and emotions of a Nazi doctor. Amis does not give the reader the information of Tod being a Nazi doctor at the beginning of the story because this would obviously bias the reader. Amis’s telling of Tod’s life before and after his time spent at the camps and his use of a narrator, instead of the doctor himself enables a reader to experience the story with a more open mind than if he would have told the story chronologically and from a different point of view. The form, sequencing, and point of view of the narrator, allow the reader to actively experience Tod’s guilt, the narrator’s confusion and the schism between the two.