Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The last three days of Cantwell’s life are devoted to the values he holds dear—comradeship, intensity in romantic love, a sense of power, aggressiveness, and assertiveness. The values of living life to the full, loving passionately, killing cleanly, and dying courageously predominate in the work. Earlier Hemingway heroes often had a cause or at least a calling in life to which they were devoted. Cantwell, older and facing death, seems to have grown disillusioned with all causes. He expresses ambivalent attitudes about his profession of soldiering. A kind of existential hero, he attaches no mystical significance to life or death.

Like the later work The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the novel incorporates Christian symbolism. The colonel’s wounded hand, for example, suggests the wounds of Christ, and there are allusions to Madonnas with reference to romantic love and love of family. The three-day plot, lasting from Friday through Sunday, may well hold symbolic significance, but the symbolism does not form any consistent allegory and at best offers only tantalizing suggestions.

The hero’s almost incessant traveling in the novel—in boats, in a car, in walks with Renata—symbolically suggests a journey toward death. Cantwell undergoes a kind of Dantean journey requiring him to come to terms with his past. Recalling and to some extent reliving his war experiences, he has numerous regrets—the many dead, the loss of his regiment and his general’s rank, the three failed marriages—yet he does not attempt to lay blame. Though he does not achieve a satisfactory resolution of his conflicting emotions, he comes to terms stoically with his losses even as he is upholding through living the values he affirms.