The Axe by Penelope Fitzerald | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of The Axe by Penelope Fitzerald

The Axe by Penelope Fitzerld follows an unidentified narrator as he writes a report and describes the responses of various people who have recently been terminated from his workplace. One such person is Mr Singlebury. While others are not affected much by this process, it is Singlebury whose life changes forever. The axe is a short story that explores the themes of guilt, dedication, injustice, fear, and responsibility through the eyes of the narrator. 

The Axe | Summary

The Axe is presented in the form of a written report from the manager to his superiors. The narrator recounts his experiences with the redundancies and, in particular, Mr Singlebury. Along with Mr Singlebury, the narrator also dismisses young Patel and two other girls. While the two girls find work as hostesses at a neighbouring Dolphinarium, and young Patel is confident he’ll find a better job, Mr Singlebury is the one who suffers the most.

In contrast, Mr Singlebury takes the news calmly at first, much to the manager’s relief. Nonetheless, just before leaving, Singlebury invites the manager to dinner at his place. 

He stays in a gloomy and dismal room in a boarding house. He expresses his anxieties about what will happen when he loses his job. As a result, the manager is dreading the idea of Singlebury’s return, fearful that he will show up at work as if nothing has happened. The manager wants to escape any awkward confrontation. He is confused about the possibility of such an event on the precept that Singlebury is a creature of habit. But nothing as such happens, Singlebury doesn’t return even to collect his belongings. 

The narrator is invited to an office party on Friday, on account of the awkward small job that he has done for his employers. At the party, he spent most of his time talking to the area sales manager named Ted Hollow. Towards the end of the party, the employer talks to the narrator for three minutes and inquires if he is all right. He replies:

“all right for whom?”.           

To this the employer replies 

“nobody’s fault was nobody’s funeral”.

The narrator resents this moment. He cannot believe that he just discovered the death of Mr Singlebury. The narrator then says that he has returned to the present time. The weekend is over but his resentment and uneasiness are not. The narrator decides to work overtime on Monday. He is angry at the company for what they made him do to Singlebury. While going outside to have his dinner he deliberately leaves the light open. But soon he feels sorry for giving in to his impulse, he returns to switch them off. Since the lifts don’t operate after 6:30 p.m., he began to take the stairs. He felt as if there is some kind of danger behind him but did not turn around and kept walking. On the third floor, he heard footsteps behind him as though he was expecting them. He is bewildered at the scene he is witnessing. Singlebury being a punctual and day person has become a creature of the night. He is wearing his blue suit. The narrator notices that Singlebury is not himself and his head was twirling erratically from side to side. The narrator perceives as him being drunk but Singlebury never consumed alcohol, not even at the office’s Christmas party. He switches on the light of Singlebury’s cubby-hole and finds that his head was not twirling; it was rather severed from his shoulders. The narrator passes beside him and enters his office and locks the door. He hears Singlebury looking for his things without which he couldn’t start his work. He resumes writing his report and a thought crosses his mind, the person next door should not be walking but buried in the ground.


The Axe | Analysis

Fitzgerald employs a mix of first-person and second-person viewpoints. While the story is narrated in the first person, for the most part, there are certain instances where the addressing is in the second person. This gives the story a more realistic tone. This happens as the narrator is composing the report.

Your actual words to me were that he seemed fairly old and could probably be frightened into taking a powder. You were speaking to me in your ‘democratic style’.

The narrator expresses his anger and disdain in the report and turns sarcastic while accusing his boss of hypocrisy. He writes:

From this point on I feel able to write more freely, it being well understood, at office-managerial level, that you do not read more than the first two sentences of any given report.

The narrator also turns didactic at one point and comments on the general nature of life.

Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day.

The sequence of time also keeps on changing. We meet the narrator in the present whilst he is writing the report. It then travels through time to give us a description of the now pitiable Mr Singlebury. This continuous travel from the present to the past and then back to the present illustrates life’s alchemy.

Fitzgerald has explored the theme of dedication and injustice through the character of Singlebury. Even though Singlebury has worked at the organization much longer than others, he is being subjected to such gross injustice. His years of service are of no value in the eyes of his employers. The capitalist system’s ageist bias gets reflected by the notion, that Singlebury should be dismissed on the grounds of his age.

In 1974, Fitzgerald entered “The Axe” into a New York Times ghost story competition. It didn’t win any prize but it was picked with twelve other stories to be published in The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories the next year. The historical background of 1970s England is that of economic regression. Many people lost their jobs and there was rampant unemployment. The story seems to mirror this cause, while some characters do find jobs and are thus not sorrowful about getting dismissed; there are few whose lives get altered forever. In addition to Mr Singlebury, the narrator’s life also transforms. He is guilt-ridden and doesn’t seem to find a way to get over it. He acts as a medium through which injustice is perpetrated. Even though he is just a medium he feels guilt-ridden for his act. The end of the story is for sure open to interpretation. We don’t know whether or not the figure actually is Mr Singlebury’s ghost, it could be just the narrator hallucinating. He was a man of habit and that’s what his ghost at the end of the story appears to be doing, what he was good at.

The short story is well-written and has a creeping sense of uneasiness, especially at the end. Singlebury’s character is sketched with tremendous sensitivity. We have a ‘silent’ man toiling away in his role without receiving any credit or acknowledgement, flung aside with little thinking for the sake of cost-cutting.     


The Axe | Themes

The short story explores the themes of guilt, ageismdedicationinjustice, and responsibility. The narrator is guilt-ridden because he feels that the organization is perpetrating injustice on Mr Singlebury. The theme of guilt appears very early in the story just as the narrator is writing his report. The narrator feels compassion towards Singlebury. He realizes that by terminating Singlebury, he has done something wrong. The theme of responsibility is explored in the light of both the characters. Singlebury was very honest and dedicated about his responsibilities towards the organization. The narrator’s responsibility, which he accepts, comes back to haunt him later. Because his entire life revolves around his work, which he is eventually robbed of, Singlebury’s fear causes him to commit suicide.

The Axe | Title of the Story

The story’s title is symbolic. The axe in this case denotes redundancy. The narrator has an axe that he must drop on Mr Singlebury. Mr Singlebury’s ghost had a severed head, which could indicate that the axe dropped by the narrator on him caused his current state. To put it in other words, Mr Singlebury was driven to commit suicide as a result of the dreadful news of his dismissal.

The Axe | Character Sketch

Singlebury – Mr Singlebury is a self-effacing, diligent individual who appears to have no life outside of work. He has the appearance of a regular person, who is never late for work. He enjoys working and following a regimen. Others may have thought he was unusual because he followed a pattern concerning his clothing. 

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he wore a blue suit and a green knitted garment with a front zip. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he wore a pair of grey trousers of man-made material which he called ‘my flannels’, and a fawn cardigan. The cardigan was omitted in summer.

Singlebury is one of the employees who have lost their employment as a result of the company’s need to maintain profit margins. His routine appears to have been disrupted, and his mental health appears to have deteriorated as a result. Of course, one interpretation could be that Singlebury has committed suicide and is now wandering the office building as a ghost. But what happened to him is not disclosed in the story.

Narrator – The narrator is the manager of the organization who has been given the task of dismissing some employees. Even though he is doing his work, he feels guilt-ridden about dismissing his assistant. He cares about Singlebury. After his dismissal, when Singlebury doesn’t come to take his things back from the office, he sends his wife to his residence only to be of no avail since no one was aware of his whereabouts.

The Axe | Literary Devices

The narrative follows a non-linear structure. Fitzgerald uses flashbacks to let the readers know about the happenings related to Mr Singlebury. The story begins in the present and moves back and forth in time. The narrator tells the readers when he returns to the present.


The Axe | About the Author

Penelope Mary Fitzgerald (17 December 1916 – 28 April 2000) was a novelist, poet, essayist, and biographer who won the Booker Prize in 1979. She was named one of “the 50 finest British writers since 1945” by The Times in 2008. Her major works are The Bookshop (1978), Offshore (1979), Human Voices (1980), At Freddie’s (1982), The Gate of Angels (1990), The Blue Flower (1995, UK, 1997, US). Her collection of short stories titled as The Means of Escape appeared in 2000, posthumously.



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