The concept of time in Peter Ackroyd's "Hawksmoor"

Term Paper, 2000

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0



0. Introduction

1. The Title Hawksmoor

2. The Plots
2.1 Plot A
2.2 Plot B

3. The Conception of Characters
3.1 The Victims
3.2 Dyer and Hawksmoor

4. Dyer’s Concept of Time

5. Rationality vs. Irrationality

6. Summary

7. Works Cited

„Now, now is the Hour, every Hour, every part of an Hour, every Moment, which in its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending.“

Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, 62.

0. Introduction

Usually a novel contains a beginning, a middle and an end. That is what the reader expects from the majority of books. This convention is not only based on the presumption that only by this sequence of beginning, middle and end a reader will find the reading of a novel rewarding but there are also theoretical concepts demanding this structure. Mendilow points out that Aristotle was one of the first to stress the meaning of a general structure in a piece of literature.[1] According to Aristotle [e]in Ganzes ist, was Anfang, Mitte und Ende hat. Ein Anfang ist, was selbst nicht mit Notwendigkeit auf etwas anderes folgt, nach dem jedoch natürlicherweise etwas anderes eintritt oder entsteht. Ein Ende ist umgekehrt, was selbst natürlicherweise auf etwas anderes folgt, und zwar notwendigerweise oder in der Regel, während nach ihm nichts anderes mehr eintritt. Eine Mitte ist, was sowohl selbst auf etwas anderes folgt als auch etwas anderes nach sich zieht.[2]

This concept is true for realistic novels but it falls short for most of the postmodern novels.

In this paper I will show how the structure of a linear plot is given up in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor. The sequence of beginning, middle and end evokes that all events are linked by a chain of causality or as Patricia Drechsel Tobin puts it „[...] events in time come to be perceived as begetting other events within a line of causality [...].“[3] In Hawksmoor the chain of causality and the linear concept of time are replaced by a circular concept of time. The events in the novel and in particular the murders cannot be explained by the principle of causality.

In my paper I will analyse the concept of time in Ackroyd’s novel. As a first step I will point out the relation of the novel to the historical figure Nicholas Hawksmoor and summarise briefly the two plots so that on this basis the analogies and recurrences in each plot can be better understood. Chapter 3 deals with the conception of characters because it is the repetition of characteristics, biographies and attitudes of the characters that illustrate best the linear concept of time. The character that is associated the most with this concept of time is the protagonist of the eighteenth-century plot Nicholas Dyer. Therefore, I choose this figure for a detailed analysis in chapter 4. Apart from the motif of time, the dualism of rationality and irrationality plays an important role in the novel. Since the aim of this paper is to examine how the motif „time“ is represented the contrast between the two opposing ideologies will be analysed only in so far how it illustrates that progress as a symbol of the concept of linear time is denied just as the singularity of everyday events.

For this reason, a full study of the contrast between the two world pictures represented by Christopher Wren as the adherent of Enlightenment and Dyer who believes in Satanism and the power of symbols is impossible. Moreover, I have to refrain from a detailed analysis of the twentieth-century plot as a detective novel. Although murders and the investigations of a detective are typical elements of this genre this study will concentrate on the functions these elements have in connection with the concept of continuity and circular time.[4]

1. The Title Hawksmoor

The title of Peter Ackroyd’s novel refers to Nicholas Hawksmoor, an English architect who was born 1661 and died in 1736. He was a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren and in 1711 he became a member of the commission that was responsible for the construction of new churches in London.[5] Although the historical figure does not appear in the text the title „gives the ‘real’ Hawksmoor a presence in the novel by his very absence from it“.[6] The two fictitious protagonists in the novel are linked to this real character in different ways. The architect Nicholas Dyer shares the profession with him, whereas Detective Chief Superintendent Nicholas Hawksmoor bares the same name as the historical figure.[7]

By this, not only do Ackroyd’s two characters possess fragments of a real person’s identity, but they are also linked with each other. Only in combining aspects of two identities, Dyer’s profession and Hawksmoor’s full name the relation of the two characters to the real Nicholas Hawksmoor becomes clear. In creating characters who are connected by such a strong relation the author anticipates the end of the novel that can be read as the fusion of two identities beyond the bounds of time which will be discussed in chapter 3.

2. The Plots

The novel which is divided into twelve chapters (chapters 1 to 5 constituting part one and chapters 6 to 12 constituting part two) contains two plots. The odd-numbered chapters are set in the eighteenth century and are written in an eighteenth-century English, whereas the setting of the even-numbered chapters is the twentieth century, presumably the 1980s. The chapters are presented in an alternate structure. Each of the two plots has its own starting point which is divided by temporal distance of approximately 270 years but they share a common end. In both plots the protagonists enter the church of Little St Hugh in order to fuse to one identity at the end of the novel.

2.1 Plot A

The protagonist of the eighteenth-century plot or plot A as I will call it in my paper, is Nicholas Dyer, „Assistant Surveyour at Her Majesty’s Office of Works“.[8] This character is modelled on the real Hawksmoor although Dyer is born seven years earlier than Hawksmoor, i.e. in 1654 and dies in 1715. Like the famous architect he is commissioned to build seven new churches in London because many buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1666. In detail, the churches who are erected are Christ Church in Spitalfields, St Anne’s in Limehouse, St George’s-in-the-East in Wapping, St Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street, St George’s in Bloomsbury, St Alfege’s in Greenwich and Little St Hugh in Black Step Lane. All these churches were built by the historical Nicholas Hawksmoor except for the last church. Little St Hugh is an invention of Ackroyd situated in a fictitious area of London.

When Dyer was a child his parents died of the plague. He became a street urchin and was introduced by the Satanist Mirabilis to occultism and the rules of the Satanic cult. After becoming a Satanist himself, Dyer consecrates each of his new churches with a human sacrifice. The blood of the victim who is either killed by Dyer himself or by a helper has to be spilled on the grounds of the church and the corpse is buried in the foundations. According to the rules of the Satanic cult all victims have to be virgin: [...] in our Eucharist the Bread must be mingled with the Blood of an Infant.“[9] Therefore, most victims are boys or childlike men.

2.2 Plot B

The main character of plot B is Superintendent Nicholas Hawksmoor who is assigned to solve a series of murders all committed in the area of churches built by Dyer. Although Hawksmoor is used to solve a crime with the help of rationality and scientific methods he realises the impossibility of finding the murderer because conventional methods as the determination of the time of the incident and the examination of the witnesses lead nowhere. During the investigations he becomes more and more psychotic not least because of the fact that he, as Luc Herman puts it „[...] must realize [...] that this case transcends the laws of cause and effect.“[10] It is only at the end of the novel that he realises the pattern of the killings and that all victims were murdered in the vicinity of churches built by Dyer.

3. The Conception of Characters

3.1 The Victims

Ackroyd establishes a relation between the two plots in giving identical or nearly identical names to the persons killed in the eightteenth-century plot and the victims of the twentieth-century plot. The persons Dyer sacrifices during the construction of his churches are Thomas Hill, a mason’s son, the tramp Ned, a boy called Dan, Yorick Hayes, Dyer’s colleague and Thomas Robinson. The victim killed in the church of Greenwich is not mentioned by name. The corpses found in the present are Thomas Hill, the son of a widow, the vagrant Edward Robinson, called Ned, Dan Dee and Matthew Hayes. The name of the fifth and sixth victim are not stated, but presumably the person found at St George’s in Bloomsbury is called Thomas Robinson like Dyer’s fifth victim.

Not only bare the victims the same names but they also have similar biographies. This identity of characteristics and life can be seen most clearly in the case of the second victim Edward (Ned) Robinson. Both had been a printer in Bristol but due to mental problems gave up their profession and became a tramp.

This repetition of names and characteristics has the effect that the reader after reading a chapter set in the eighteenth century knows who will be killed in the subsequent twentieth-century chapter. In Hawksmoor the concept of individuality is given up. There are no individual characters but only certain characteristics recurring in the course of time.

Die Wiederholung von Eigenschaften und Merkmalen in der Figurencharakterisierung der Protagonisten weist auf eine anti-realistische Figurenkonzeption hin, für die Individualität kein gültiges Persönlichkeitsmodell mehr bildet. Die Figuren erscheinen nicht länger als selbstbestimmte Subjekte, die ihr Schicksal lenken, sondern vielmehr als Repräsentanten von überzeitlichen menschlichen Erfahrungen von Entfremdung vom Selbst und von anderen, von Einsamkeit, Hoffnungslosigkeit und Verzweiflung.[11]


[1] Cf. A.A. Mendilow, Time And The Novel (New York: Humanities Press, 1972) 45.

[2] Aristoteles, Poetik, trans. and ed. Manfred Fuhrmann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996) 25.

[3] Patricia Drechsel Tobin, Time And The Novel. The Genealogical Imperative (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) 7.

[4] For Hawksmoor as a form of the detective novel see Alison Lee, Realism and Power. Postmodern British Fiction (London: Routledge, 1990) 69 and Susanne Spekat, „Postmoderne Gattungshybriden: Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor als generische Kombination aus historical novel, gothic novel und detective novel,“Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 30 (1997): 194-197.

[5] Cf. „Hawksmoor, Nicholas,“Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago: Benton, 1967 ed.

[6] Lee, Realism and Power, 84.

[7] Cf. Brad Leithauser, „Thrown Voices,“New Yorker 8 February 1988: 100.

[8] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (London: Penguin, 1993) 10.

[9] Ibid., 20.

[10] Luc Herman, „The Relevance of History: Der Zauberbaum (1985) by Peter Sloterdijk and Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd,“History and Post-war Writing, ed. Theo D’haen and Hans Bertens (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990): 117.

[11] Spekat, „Postmoderne Gattungshybriden,“ 190.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


The concept of time in Peter Ackroyd's "Hawksmoor"
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft)
Prosa der Postmoderne
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
534 KB
Peter, Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, Prosa, Postmoderne
Quote paper
M.A. Anke Grundmann (Author), 2000, The concept of time in Peter Ackroyd's "Hawksmoor", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The concept of time in Peter Ackroyd's "Hawksmoor"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free