The Serendipitous Universe: Chance in English Literature

Maria Bregman is a journalist, writer and researcher in contemporary literature and culture.

Chance, often synonymous with luck or randomness, has a rich presence in English literature. It’s the gust of wind that alters a character’s destiny or the roll of the dice that determines their fate. Whether subtly influencing events or drastically shaping the narrative arc, chance offers a captivating interplay of chaos and order within the fictional universe.

Chance in Plot Development

Chance frequently manifests in the twists and turns of the plot, adding layers of complexity and intrigue. One notable example is Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” The chance encounter between Tess and Alec d’Urberville sets in motion a series of events that forever change the course of Tess’s life. This seemingly accidental meeting catalyzes the tragic trajectory of the narrative, highlighting the theme of fate and its intertwined relationship with chance.

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” chance plays a central role in the unfolding tragedy. A series of chance events, from Mercutio’s encounter with Tybalt to the miscommunication of Friar Laurence’s message, propel the story towards its fatal conclusion. The element of chance elevates the play’s intensity, emphasizing the unpredictability of human destinies.

Character Arcs and Transformation

Chance can also dictate the evolution of characters. In Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” the chance encounter between Pip and the convict Magwitch in the marshes is a pivotal moment that sets Pip on a transformative journey. This random meeting triggers a series of events that force Pip to confront his own identity, social expectations, and moral conscience.

Likewise, in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a chance encounter at Pemberley between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy marks a turning point in their relationship. Elizabeth’s newfound perspective on Darcy is influenced by this unexpected encounter, showcasing how chance can shift character perceptions and influence the course of love and destiny.

Unpredictable Relationships

Chance often governs the relationships and interactions between characters. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the accidental reunion between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, facilitated by Nick Carraway, ignites a spark that reignites their past romance. The accidental reunion is a catalytic event that drives the narrative forward and ultimately leads to the tragic resolution of the story.

Moreover, in Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” the chance observation by Briony Tallis sets off a chain of events that have a profound impact on the lives of multiple characters. This accidental glimpse and the subsequent misunderstanding form the crux of the story, underlining how chance can have far-reaching consequences on relationships and perceptions.

A Critique of Chance: Balancing Chaos and Design

The integration of chance in literature raises fundamental questions about the creative process and the balance between chaos and design. Much like Jackson Pollock’s controlled chaos on canvas, authors strategically deploy chance within a structured narrative framework.

Pros of Chance in Literature

  1. Realism and Authenticity: Chance reflects the randomness of life, adding authenticity to the narrative. It mimics the unpredictable nature of human experiences and makes the storyline more relatable to readers.
  2. Engagement and Suspense: Incorporating chance elements keeps the readers engaged, as they cannot predict the outcome. This suspense adds to the literary appeal, making the story more captivating.
  3. Complexity and Depth: Chance injects complexity into the plot, characters, and themes, allowing for multidimensional interpretations. It enriches the layers of meaning and invites deeper analysis.

Cons of Chance in Literature

  1. Coincidence Overload: Over-reliance on chance can lead to an abundance of coincidences, making the narrative seem contrived or unrealistic. Authors must strike a delicate balance to avoid this pitfall.
  2. Loss of Authorial Control: Excessive use of chance may compromise the author’s control over the narrative, potentially diluting the intended themes or messages.

A Dance of Fate and Chaos

Chance in English literature is a dance between fate and chaos, revealing the beauty of unpredictability within a structured narrative. Authors use chance to infuse vitality and authenticity into their works, presenting a world that mirrors the randomness of our own existence. Through skillful storytelling, they navigate the fine line between chance and design, creating masterpieces that resonate with readers and stand the test of time.