City of the Mind


“He has become, it seems, nothing but a pair of eyes, seeing this.”

City of the Mind by Penelope Lively gives a unique perspective in which the reader is able to view the city of London, not just through the mind of a native, but through the mind of an architect. This allows the reader to gain the perspective of the buildings, which are generally inanimate objects overlooked as simply small facets of the characters world meant to give aesthetic value. However, when we regard buildings as being able to have a perspective, we are able to see the city in a new light, breaking into the privacy of the many vectors that occur in public spaces and getting an unbiased view of how people interact in public spaces for hundreds of years. The city then is no longer laid out neatly into organized plots of spaces, but becomes a web of interconnecting lives layered over years stemming from the time the buildings were constructed all the way to the present. This is reflected through Lively’s keen ability to connect different eras and characters seamlessly, to show how all of our emotions and desires have archetypically remained the same, and that every human being desires to be loved, noticed, and to have a place in this massive world. The stars, like the buildings, are also key to Lively’s character development, as they are emissions of light that have overlooked the city, and all cities, for hundreds of years as well, in the same way as the buildings. The reader is reminded that each night we walk under the same stars, and each day into and around the same buildings, as people hundreds of years before and hundreds of years after us have and will do. Thinking of ourselves in such small terms in juxtaposition of the layers of time which are created in even just one space in our life, is an extremely humbling consideration; however, just to know that our thoughts, fears, and desired are echoed in every human being around us is comforting because it unites the human race, rather than separating it.

Lively unites the characters she chooses to create in her novel by reflecting similar situations in layers upon one another. These situations are typically ones that are defining moments in the characters’ lives. These moments are evoked by a character experiencing their entire future shift, or the possibility of it, and altering their entire world as they previously knew it. At the end of chapter thirteen, Lively depicts a scene where Jane runs into the road and is nearly killed by an oncoming car. Matthew explains hat “he lives, in that flash, the whole of it-her broken body, the ambulance, the hospital, the faces of strangers, tomorrow and tomorrow and the rest of life” (Lively). This is a defining moment for Matthew, while his daughter was not killed, he still has a flash of a possible future, and how fragile life is and how quickly it can be changed. This moment is then echoed in the following chapter, when the air raid warden states “in twelve hours nothing happens; in ten seconds, a street explodes into fire and dust” (Lively). Again, Lively uses this moment to portray the fragility of life. This chapter ends with the warden’s daughter dying, “he stands there. He has become, it seems, nothing but a pair of eyes, seeing this. He knows only this here and now, this sight. And it comes to him, in a long moment, that there will never be at time when this has not been” (Lively). Again, Lively emphasizes the moment that can come to define these characters, and how even though many years have passed in between the existence of each, the same things remain important and death and the fragility of life is still a constant fear. How fragile human life is, though, is ironic in juxtaposition with the buildings that surround them, which surpass their lives and overlook all of these tragedies.

Without human beings and these life-defining moments or even mundane daily activities, the buildings and brilliant architecture and spaces are simply hollow shells. The spaces that human beings inhabit only become noteworthy and meaningful because we bring the meaning to those spaces. In Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting,” she states “when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye” (Woolf). That is to say, the central eye within each of us is what gives meaning to these places, this eye is what allows us to understand and inhabit the places that surround us. Lively shows that the spaces we inhabit, no matter how beautiful, would be nothing if there were not people to consider them beautiful or to inhabit and experience and exist within them.


Interesting Links:

Virtual Tour of London, can you map where we were?


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