Is literary analysis something that ought to be reserved for a particular type of book? It’s a significant question, because implicit in it is a questioning of the fundamental purpose of literary analysis. This is a debate that fascinates me, but rather than exploring it in the abstract, I want to take a work of incredibly popular modern fiction, and subject it to some serious, if tentative, analysis. The book I want to take is One Day by David Nicholls: it is well on its way to reaching one million sales this year in the UK alone, but simultaneously its original structure provides a entry-point for analysis.
The originality of the book is chiefly found in this unique structure: the book follows the lives of protagonists Emma and Dexter on the same date across 20 years. Nicholls himself said that he wanted to create the sense of ‘a photo album, so that the characters seem to change, yet remain the same’. However this snapshot approach is undermined by the fact that (as critical reviewers have pointed out) each chapter tends to begin with each character recounting what has happened in the preceding twelve months.
A second claim Nicholls makes for his structure is that ‘my initial instinct was to cover landmarks – births, marriages, deaths. Instead, I’ve taken one day at random – like a date on a bank statement’. This is a radical claim: as early as Tom Jones in the eighteenth century novelists have been conscious of omitting insignificant passages in story; but Nicholls claims to be doing the opposite. This might be seen to be commenting on the significance of non-momentous events, except it seems that Nicholls is again being disingenuous. It stretches plausibility that Emma and Dexter not only meet on July 15th, but it also the date on which they fall out, reunite, launch their first prime time show, become romantically involved, not to mention the date that Emma dies. This is not a criticism of the novel; but it is a dismantling of the claim that the days are chosen ‘at random’.
If the structuring is neither rigorously followed nor realistic, it might be better seen as a system of imposing significance and meaning. This is clearly a motivation for any narrative: in telling a story we take orderless events and manipulate them into a narrative with causation, and ultimately meaning. In One Day this meaning comes significantly from the fetishisation of one particular date. The actual significance of the date changes: initially it is the anniversary of their first meeting, by the end of the novel (in an allusion to Tess of the D’Urbervilles) it has become the anniversary of Emma’s death. Looking at dates for patterns to signify providence is a pastime of Robinson Crusoe, but in One Day it is not the characters who carry out this work (neither Emma nor Dexter is ever explicitly aware that it is the anniversary of their meeting), but the novel itself which highlights this anniversary and endows it with significance.
However in many ways, what is most significant in the novel is not the date, but the lovers themselves. One Day is deeply entrenched in the cultural attitude towards romance that two people are ‘meant to be’. One Day takes the comparatively rare (although by no means unique) approach of dividing attention equally between both lovers: Pride and Prejudice is the story of Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy as her love interest; One Day has no such primacy.
In contrast to the shared focus on Emma and Dexter, the novel furthers this effect by marginalising all other characters, and particularly romantic interests. By beginning emphatically with their first meeting and continuing by highlighting both of them, there is never the slightest possibility that Dexter will end up with Sylvie, even when he is in love with her.
It is striking that the novel indulges in endless counter-factual speculation about Emma and Dexter coming together sooner (what if Dexter had mailed the letter? What if Emma had answered the phone when she was on her first date with Ian?), there is a total absence of comparable exploration of the possibility of them finding love elsewhere. The sense that is created by all these effects is that Emma and Dexter could only ever end up together – the tragedy of the book is that it takes them both so long to realise this.
Of course, this analysis holds firm for the vast majority of the novel, but the closing chapters offer two distinct twists. Emma’s death is obviously integral to the meaning of the novel, but it is equally worth considering the fact that Nicholls’ avoids the conventional comic romantic ending by bringing his couple together with five years left to go. It has been often noted that fiction has endless courting couples but precious few happy marriages: traditional comedy (and modern rom-coms) tend to end with a wedding day. The two years that Emma and Dexter are married function as a demystification of the ‘happily-ever-after’ myth: their inability to conceive symbolises the ongoing problems in the happiest couples. Dexter’s conclusion that he is not ‘happyish’ but ‘happy’ is a validation of this lifestyle and of the novel’s premise that the pair are destined to be together, but it is no fairy tale.
Far more significantly, the fairy tale premise is undermined by the sudden death of Emma. Again, this might conventionally be placed at the very end of the novel, with perhaps the last chapter inserted as an epilogue, but Nicholls resists this temptation in order to consider what happens when a Romeo has to outlive his Juliet. Dexter, unlike Emma, has been prepared for this by undergoing significant loss twice in the novel; once when his mother dies and once with divorce: neither case ends well. Thus it is unsurprising when his most significant loss sees him thrown out of a strip club.
Of course, Dexter doesn’t end in self-destructive mode; he ends by taking his daughter to the spot where he spent that first day with Emma. This artistic symmetry only confirms the sense that he has no life beyond her: he is on holiday with his daughter from a pre-Emma relationship and his post-Emma partner, but his actions are still focused on her. Partly this is because it is the anniversary of her death, a day on which she would obviously be in his thoughts, but in the structure of the novel every day shares this focus. Dexter does not end the novel in despair, but he does end it with very little beyond memory to live for.
Thus One Day is both inextricable from and sceptical of the myth of lovers destined to be with one another. On the one hand there is no possibility in the novel that Emma could have married Ian or Dexter been happy with Sylvie, but on the other there is no possibility that Dexter will ever see Emma again. ‘Em and Dex’ is at once a mythologized concept (it is hard to finish the book without wondering who your Em/Dex is) and simultaneously extinct. Fragile but beautiful, One Day’s presentation of love is far more complex than the pop-fiction romantic comedy box in which it has been placed.
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