Chaos Theory is one of the central tenets of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, highlighted by both the characters and the setting. The characters try to understand and thereby control their surroundings. This is manifested abstractly through the attempt to solve mathematical equations and concretely by trying to create the perfect garden.
Chaos Theory is centralized on the behavior of nonlinear systems, aiming to predict the unpredictable. This theory encompasses the complexity of nature and the concept that chaos in life is disorderly, but not random. Based on factual mathematics, Chaos theory is able to relate to numerous natural principles on Earth, such as clouds, rivers, and ecosystems, which all act in a chaotic manner. At the same time, Chaos Theory pertains to economic and social systems, which are constantly changing and affected by many different components. The common factor in all of these cases is the receptiveness to initial conditions or events. This also is referred to as the Butterfly Effect, an idea stating that a small action, such as a butterfly flapping its wings, can change the weather. By understanding the connection between the different systems on Earth, Chaos Theory can give a forecast of the cause or outcome to a certain event or system.
In the play, Thomasina Coverly, a character from the nineteenth century plot, begins to realize the basics of Chaos Theory, almost two hundred years before its recognized discovery, while examining the jam in her rice pudding. While mixing the jam in her pudding, Thomasina realized that the two substances could not be un-mixed. This leads to a conversation on Newton’s Law of Motion, where Thomasina concludes that if it was possible to stop every moving atom, one could formulate equations for the future. This conclusion connects to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which describes the presence of chaos and disorder in the world.
Chaos Theory appears once again in the play in the present day plot. This time it occurs when Valentine attempts to explain the basics of the theory to a visiting scholar in his, Hannah Jarvis. While looking through pages of Thomasina’s book, Valentine notices the various equations and algorithms. To Valentine’s surprise, these equations feed from one to another, a concept that had only recently been discovered. Valentine explains to Hannah that eventually these equations could be used to describe the unpredictability of nature, essentially using the fundamentals of Chaos Theory.
This same idea is carried through to the setting, where ultimately the garden is symbolic as it displays the devolution of order into chaos. The garden starts out orderly and formal, and eventually becomes more natural and chaotic as the characters re-design it following the fashion of the time. This portrays the human desire to control all aspects of life and highlights the human struggle to master nature, even when it may be better left as it is. Inevitably, nature tends to chaotic order, despite the best efforts of human kind.