Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Dragon’s Seed” treats several social and literary subjects. The most topical and most disturbing concerns children: those who run away or are abducted from their homes and come to be sexually abused and made part of the “kiddie porn” industry. Another is madness and eccentricity, as well as the social means used to deal, or not deal, with them. Finally there is Madison Smartt Bell’s use, or abuse, of the mythic method of literary high modernism, which T. S. Eliot defined as the manipulation of “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” in order to control, order, and give “a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.”

Bell’s story is not about any of these. Its purpose is broader and revolves around two general questions: how and how well one sees oneself and one’s world, and how one engages the world, a question of concern for every individual and, more especially in this story, for every artist. The answer to the first question is neatly if pessimistically summed up in Bell’s description of one of the objects that Mackie finds and then quickly discards, a marble that has lost its luster: “The cloud in it no longer looked like a whirlwind, but a cataract.” As for the second, Mackie unwisely withdraws into her house, herself, her Greek myths, and her art, an art without an audience and without a purpose. Even at her most withdrawn and outwardly self-sufficient, she maintains at least some contact with the world, first through her demons, to whom she relegates the task of seeing what that part of her personality called “Mackie” prefers not to, and later the boy, Monkey/Preston/Jason Sturges, in whom the Greek myths live and for whom Mackie’s art takes on meaning, purpose, finished form. In taking an interest in the boy, Mackie becomes not only the engaged artist but also the engaged citizen. She comes to stand in marked contrast to her indifferent neighbors in general, particularly to Gil, the artist as pornographer.