Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two major elements pervade this tightly structured and closely observed tale, which became the basis for the 1954 Marlon Brando film The Wild One. The theme of death is strong within the story. It is introduced first by the generalized suggestion of death that people connect with World War II, from whose European combat Joel Bleeker has returned physically unscathed to resume his existence in rural California. His postwar life there has been tranquil, marred only by the death of his wife two years earlier.

Bleeker has apparently learned to live with his loss. He adores his daughter, who, like her mother, is feisty, humorous, and caring. Bleeker has laid to rest his memories of war and its horrors. On the day of the story, however, all his painful memories are evoked instantly, first by the high-decibel approach of the motorcyclists—his first thought that they are airplanes must trigger his memories of enemy bombers—and, after the source of the noise is finally identified, by the military precision with which the motorcycle columns approach his hotel.

Clearly, Gar Simpson is “general” of the rowdy gang, whose members he understands remarkably well. He knows that, as commander, he can best maintain control over his men by allowing them the freedom that results eventually in massive destruction and, finally, death. Simpson is meticulously polite and, within his own boundaries, responsible. The Angelenos, all but one of whom are...

(The entire section is 416 words.)