Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Dean’s December is about power and the nature of reality. Corde, for many years a journalist based in Paris, returned to Chicago because “for me it’s more like the front lines. Here is where the action is.” The entire novel can be seen as an attempt to locate this “action.” Relationships are constantly tested in terms of relative or effective power. When he is in Rumania, Corde constantly tries to pull strings. Indeed, throughout the novel, Corde is dealing with power-savvy realists: the colonel, the provost, Zaehner, and, as it turns out, Dewey Spangler. The ineffective, theory-spinning Corde—and here he is not alone among academic liberals—admires toughness. He is fascinated by power, and he realizes that it is power, not ideas, that moves the world. He grudgingly admires his brother-in-law Zaehner (who despises him) because he is forceful, smart, political, cynical, and rich, “a Lyndon Johnson type of bully.” Chicago, the “Cloaca Maxima,” rivets his imagination with its “wild, monstrous setting of half demolished cities” where the only choice is “between a slow death and a sudden one, between attrition and quick destruction.”

The book’s best descriptions are of the Cook County hospital and the county jail, where the younger lawyers “were built like professional athletes, flashy dressers who went to hair stylists, not to barbers. Beautifully combed, like pretty ladies or dear small boys in Cruikshank’s Dickens illustrations, they might have been either thugs or...

(The entire section is 623 words.)