Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The central theme of Confederates is summed up in its title, which can be interpreted in both its specific and its general senses: specifically, as identifying those who support the Confederate States of America, and generally, as referring to those who band together for some common purpose. Keneally’s novel is first and foremost a brilliant evocation of a particular historical period, but its parallel depiction of the various kinds of confederacy that occur in wartime constitutes such a pervasive thematic thread that it deserves separate emphasis.

Those who are literally Confederates, the soldiers whose combat experiences are the most dramatic part of the book, are bound together by discipline as well as by mutual love of country. Thus, the soldiers serving in Bumpass’ regiment begin the war as ardent Confederates in spirit, but, as losses in battle, the hardships of campaigning, and dilution by less enthusiastic conscripts take their toll, it is the manifest penalties for indiscipline that gradually supersede the latent ties of sentiment: The Confederates are forced to become confederates.

Other varieties of confederacy that are important in the book include the collusions necessitated by espionage and sexual attachments. These are seen as among the less powerful bonds between human beings: Searcy’s spy network collapses when its weakest link reveals the other members of the chain, and most of the sexual relationships in the novel are characterized as intense but transitory passions which are usually overridden by the duties demanded by group and nation. It is the soldier’s faith in his country’s cause and in the loyalty of his comrades that weaves together the many narrative strands of Confederates, enabling Keneally to fashion a vital historical tapestry out of the raw materials of individual experiences, emotions, and aspirations.