Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Coffin Tree is a novel about betrayal. The narrator seems to have been betrayed from birth; her mother dies giving her life, giving her over, it would seem, to no one in particular. Her grandmother reminds her constantly that she is a “mother killer.” Her aunts and uncle are living in her father’s house not because of her but because of their own private reasons. She is most deeply betrayed, however, by the two people who matter most to her.

The narrator’s father, whom she describes as “born to wield” power, was the tyrannical god of her childhood. He is usually absent, ostensibly playing his preferred role of leader of the People’s Army. Only from adult retrospection does the narrator realize the general indifference her father must have felt toward her, and she comes to realize that what she knew of her father was the “official version.” Her resentment finally shows: “His business was to be a father to us, his children; why else had he given us life?” Finally, she realizes that when her father had gone into hiding after the coup, there was really no danger to her or to Shan. Even her father’s enemies had known that it would not have been any use to seek his surrender by threatening his children. His feelings for his children simply did not equal his devotion to his revolutionary tasks.

Shan also betrays the narrator. The narrator has grown up believing that the elder brother and protector of her childhood...

(The entire section is 538 words.)