A Gap in the Spectrum: When Existentialism Was in the Air

Dale Benson
University of Otago
Department of English

Deep South v.2 n.3 (Spring, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Dale Benson, all rights reserved.

When I interviewed Marilyn Duckworth in Wellington in 1995 I was very excited by the similarities between her novel A Gap in the Spectrum (1959) and Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist classic, Nausea, which was first published in French in 1938 and in English in 1949. Here, I thought, was a clear case of a young author whose first novel had been profoundly influenced by her reading of existentialist literature.

The timing seemed right: Duckworth had written her novel while returning from Europe in the late fifties. What with the death of God and the questioning of the validity of scientific methods, indeed, the questioning of all knowledge, many people in the West were uncertain about physical and spiritual matters which they used to be able to take for granted. One of their ways of dealing with this uncertainty is reflected in the novels, short stories plays and philosophical treatises of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the two French existentialist writers whose ideas are most evident in New Zealand's literature during the years following World War II. New Zealand novels like Erik de Mauny's The Huntsman in His Career (1949), Greville Texidor's These Dark Glasses (1949), Redmond Wallis' Point of Origin (1962), Graham Billing's Forbush and the Penguins (1965) and Albert Wendt's Sons for the Return Home (1973) contain numerous explicit and unacknowledged references to some of the existentialist concepts developed by Sartre and Camus.

The accumulation of similar ideas in novels by these New Zealand authors encouraged me to look for further evidence of literary French existentialism in Duckworth's fiction. I went to Wellington to interview the author whose first novel reeked of Sartre and who was going to explain to me, passage by passage, where she had unearthed the ideas which she had subsequently reinterred in her fiction. Before writing A Gap in the Spectrum, had she read Nausea in French or in English?

Neither? Marilyn Duckworth was very patient with me, even after she told me that she hadn't read any existentialist literature before she wrote A Gap in the Spectrum, even when I showed her some of the similarities between her novel and one written twenty years previously. When I asked Duckworth her opinion about why such a comparison would occur to me, her reply supplied the title of this paper: "Existentialism", she said, "was in the air".

Evidently my original supposition that A Gap in the Spectrum resembled an existentialist novel wasn't entirely foolish. New Zealand has had a kind of existentialist literature (or, more accurately, "pre-existentialist" because it wasn't at all self-conscious,) since the pioneers' and settlers' experience of isolation in an unpredictable environment was first dramatized in this country's early novels and short stories. Several of New Zealand's authors used the device of the misunderstood outsider, the Man Alone, to explicitly or implicitly focus attention on social conditions. A handful of Men Alone like Richard Raleigh in George Chamier's Philosopher Dick: Adventures and Contemplations of a New Zealand Shepherd (1891) are deracinated, isolated and alienated. They explore some of the same concerns as modern existentialist characters.

In a nineteenth century pioneer society with its strong Myth of Progress, that is, its faith that settlers would tame the bush and create a Britain in the South Seas, Richard Raleigh is an early Man Alone. A migrant from Britain, Raleigh has not put down roots. His occupation, that of walking the boundaries of a large sheep station, means that he spends much of his time isolated from station society. Because he has no ambition to better himself--he doesn't want to own land, get a wife, start a family--in short, because he doesn't want to become a productive member of society, because he is an atheist attracted to Charles Darwin's theories about evolution, because he fancies himself as an intellectual, Raleigh is alienated from station society. He becomes so desperately lonely that when a flock of sheep he was supposedly guarding unconsciously reinforce Darwin's theories by running over a cliff edge as they instinctive flee the wild dogs which instictively chase them, Raleigh despairs about his own purpose in such an indifferent and determined environment. He is tempted to suicide.

John Mulgan's 1939 novel, Man Alone, introduces a modern incarnation of the Man Alone, although it wasn't until well after the novel was published that literary commentators borrowed Mulgan's title to define a familiar figure in New Zealand's literature. In Man Alone Chamier's Victorian prose is replaced by a leaner, more transparent style of expression and Chamier's authorial voice with its explicit moralizing gives way to Mulgan's more unobtrusive narrative shell. What remains, though, is the basic story line in which Johnson, an English migrant, drifts alone from job to job because, like Raleigh, he has no ambition to join conventional society. His alienation from that society becomes extreme when he accidentally shoots a man and hides in the bush to escape the authorities. The experience nearly kills him, and a pattern emerges: a lonely migrant embarks on a learning journey during which he (or infrequently she) flees conventional society and is tested by adverse natural conditions until he realizes his potential.

I believe that this pre-existentialist literature was already well-established when French existentialist ideas were imported into New Zealand around World War II. Thus, even if Duckworth had read no contemporary existentialist literature before she wrote her first novel, she could be added to the list of New Zealand authors who, without any hints from Sartre or Camus, explored the existential territory of the Men Alone who have long wandered through New Zealand's literature.

Because Duckworth's Man Alone is, in fact, a woman whose adventures take place in England rather than New Zealand, I contend that Duckworth has simply reversed the traditional learning journey of novels like Philosopher Dick or Man Alone. Diana Clouston, the protagonist of A Gap in the Spectrum must learn how to survive in London, a place as strange and unpredictable to her as New Zealand was to the early British pioneers and settlers. But she is closer to Johnson than to Richard Raleigh in that, like Johnson, she takes the absence of God and the indifference of the universe to human beings for granted. Raleigh, by contrast, explores these ideas before he resolves to settle down in conventional society.

If Duckworth is part of an indigenous New Zealand tradition, why then did I think she must have read Nausea before she wrote her first novel? The most likely answer is that ideas from the seminar on Nausea I had just prepared for a course about Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy had seeped into my understanding of all my other reading. Even the title of Duckworth's novel evoked a theme that Sartre explored in Nausea: the world is not necessarily as predictable as we have been taught to believe.

In A Gap in the Spectrum a panicky Diana wakes up in London without the faintest idea of what London represents. She has no recollection of how she got there. Diana thinks she comes from a place called Micald, a place that is unlike London in nearly every respect. The sky appears different. The water tastes different. There is no such thing as the colour red, which explains the gap in the spectrum of the title. Duckworth's novel is the first person account of how Diana learns to rebel against the blandness of Micald by adopting the colour red and the rebellion it represents into her system of values.

Sartre's Nausea is also a first person account, this time in the form of a diary by Antoine Roquentin. One day Roquentin is unexpectedly horrified: he notices that the world he has always taken for granted and has always been able to control with words and their fixed meanings has come unstuck. Things have lost their distinct meaning and shape, and their very formlessness is threatening because it takes no notice of him. Roquentin has no God-given meaning. He discovers that the scientific laws which he had thought governed his existence are not one hundred percent predictable. Sartre summarizes Roquentins's resultant queasiness with the title Nausea, and uses his diary to recount how he learns to make meaning in a meaningless world.

A Gap in the Spectrum and Nausea are thus broadly similar because both are in the first person and their protagonists learn, after much uncertainty and hardship, how to manage in unexpected situations. To call Duckworth's novel existentialist on the basis of these affinities is nearly as superficial as concluding that cats bark because, like dogs, they have fur and four legs! Even so, some of the correspondences between the two novels are compelling. I have used italics to highlight them.

The first dated diary entry in Nausea begins with the protagonist's description of his problem: Something has happened to me, I can't doubt it any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything evident. It came cunningly, little by little ... (Nausea, 13)

This is what Diana has to say about how she felt when she first wakes up in London:

The air is quite a different colour here. I don't know when I first began to notice it, but gradually it has crept up on me--the different colour of the air--the different taste of the water. It has a certain saltiness. But no one else has noticed it. I think I must have come from some very sweet place--sweet and lukewarm, and the sky the colour of breath. (A Gap in the Spectrum, 1)

Roquentin and Diana experience similar feelings of panic. In the following excerpt Roquentin is racing through the streets of Bouville (Mudville) afraid of what might happen since things seem to have lost their solidity:

I repeated with anguish: Where shall I go? where shall I go? Anything can happen. Sometimes, my heart pounding, I made a sudden right-about-turn: what was happening behind my back? Maybe it would start behind me and when I would turn around, suddenly, it would be too late. (Nausea, 115)

Roquentin takes to naming the objects he sees, for example, "this is a gaslight, this is a drinking fountain." He thinks that by naming them that he will solidify them into their conventional, expected forms. In the following excerpt Diana wanders, lost, through the street of Piccadilly:

This was a world of horrible, meaningless things ....
My perceptive powers seemed to have sharpened and all at once I noticed something about the people around me which I had missed before. Some of them were exaggeratedly thin, some terrible fat .... I remembered a dream I had once had, when things had swelled to abnormal proportions, and then diminished sickeningly.
My sense of insecurity grew. This was a world of extremes. Anything could happen, I thought, not for the first time. Anything, anything.
I almost ran up Sloane Street ... (A Gap in the Spectrum, 21-22)

Diana finds her way back to the boarding house where she looks at the familiar landmarks of her room to calm her nerves.

Given Duckworth's announcement about the lack of any specific existentialist influence in A Gap in the Spectrum, I am aware how superficial the similarities I have just pointed out must appear. Her explanation for the similarity, however, that "existentialism was in the air", helps me to deepen their significance because I can interpret Duckworth's statement in two ways.

As explained earlier, Diana Clouston's London experience was the Man Alone's original journey through the unfamiliar New Zealand wilderness --- backwards. But it is more than that: A Gap in the Spectrum compares Diana's present tense London to her memories of Micald, which the author herself told me represents restrictive New Zealand. Diana is an outsider observing both London and New Zealand, and the reader is able to interpret both places through her point of view. There is a progression of sorts from Richard Raleigh, to Johnson, to Diana Clouston, in that these protagonists have less and less to shield them from knowledge of their ultimate loneliness. Alienated from conventional society, an early Man Alone like Raleigh must learn how to get along with people in order to become a productive member of society before the end of the novel. A later Man Alone like Johnson learns to value the saving grace of a few good mates in an unpredictable world without God before the end of his narrative. Diana's alienation is even greater: she is alienated both from the secular and lukewarm Micald of her memories and the London of her present. First she must learn how to join a strange society, and then she must learn how to declare her independence from her increasingly possessive lover. This, by the way, is another of the similarities I saw between Duckworth and Sartre: the Frenchman spent a lot of words defining his notion that true love between the sexes is impossible because one half of a couple will always try to control the other.

That "existentialism was in the air" could also be taken to mean that because of the two world wars and the possibility of total annihilation and the profound questioning of everything that has become emblematic of the twentieth century, some New Zealand writers have wrapped their narratives around the same sorts of questions about the human condition asked by Sartre and many other modern writers. In other words, both A Gap in the Spectrum and Nausea belong to the same modern zeitgeist.

A glance at a short story published ten years before Duckworth's first novel will illustrate what I mean. In 1949 "The Red Dogs" by English author Anna Kavan who had lived in New Zealand between 1941 and 1943 was published in John Lehmann's little wartime journal Penguin New Writing. Is it a reflection of the times or simply a coincidence that Lehmann also published in 1949 an English translation of Sartre's Nausea under the title of The Diary of Antoine Roquentin?

In her story Kavan describes the anxiety caused by the arrival of aliens resembling red dogs whose appearance turn a once familiar setting into a lethally unpredictable environment. When the authorities can no longer ignore the rumours that these red dogs devour human flesh, they attempt to control this deadly new variety of what they call distemper by inoculating all terrestrial dogs. Because the aliens aren't dogs at all, the inoculations don't work. There follows a period of collaboration when the aliens are provided with human corpses to scavenge. Just as for Diana and Roquentin, life for Kavan's protagonist is completely changed.

When the protagonist wonders, "Were our officials blind, negligent, incapable, misinformed? Or were they corrupt, and guilty of a positive breach of trust?" the rapid takeover by the red dogs could be interpreted as a metaphor for conquest by the Fascists or Communists during World War II. To assume a specific historical influence may be incorrect: Kavan was addicted to heroin and all of her stories focus on strange things happening to isolated people.

Since Kavan died of an overdose nearly thirty years ago, I expect she won't object to my opinion that "The Red Dogs" bears an even stronger resemblance to Nausea than Duckworth's A Gap in the Spectrum. Both her story and Sartre's novel are written in the form of journal entries by protagonists who can't confide in anyone. In the following excerpt the protagonist of Kavan's story describes the arrival of the red dogs. Again, I have used italics to highlight the similarities:

I can't recollect exactly how or when I first got to hear that there were any such creatures. Others have told me that they too feel a similar vagueness about the preliminary stages of the invasion. Knowledge of the red dogs seemed to steal into our minds in the same stealthy way that the beasts themselves penetrated and possessed the territories of the globe. (Celebration, 227)

Roquentin also records and attempts to classify his increasingly nightmarish experiences. Like the authorities in Kavan's story Roquentin ignores the strange goings on for as long as he can. Like the authorities, his attempts at classification are useless in an unpredictable present. You have seen this excerpt already:

Something has happened to me, I can't doubt it any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything evident. It came cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little put out, that's all. (Nausea, 13)

Whether an image of World War II or of a terrifying personal isolation, "The Red Dogs" also recalls some of New Zealand's early literature. While the early pioneers and settlers didn't have aliens to content with, parts of the new territory would have seemed as deadly to the migrant. Thus, what the protagonists in "The Red Dogs" (and A Gap in the Spectrum and Nausea) and some of New Zealand's pre-existentialist fiction have in common is the strangeness of their situations and the feelings of insecurity that such strangeness causes.

An embarrassing gaffe at the start of my interview with Marilyn Duckworth and her subsequent explanation for the similarities between her novel and Sartre's, that "existentialism was in the air", has refocussed my ideas about New Zealand's existentialist literature. After studying several of New Zealand's Man Alone narratives, I have come to believe that A Gap in the Spectrum extends the Man Alone tradition. Consciously or not, it also characterizes the postwar zeitgeist, which, in a sense, is related to the pioneers' experience: during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries individuals had to learn how to cope in a completely changed and unpredictable environment. I was encouraged when Marilyn Duckworth told me that some of her later writings are, in fact, existentialist. That acknowledgment had rendered my heretofore exceedingly provisional conclusion more likely: in some of Duckworth's novels and short stories, New Zealand's pre-existentialism has evolved into the French existentialism which has had such a pervasive effect on post-war writing.


Duckworth, Marilyn. A Gap in the Spectrum. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1959; New Zealand Classic, 1985.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea, trans. by Robert Baldick. London: Penguin Books Limited, 1965.

Stones, Anthony, ed. Celebration: An Anthology of New Zealand Writing from the Penguin New Writing Series. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1984.

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