Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A central concern of Christopher Tilghman’s story is the agonizing pressures placed on the individual as member of the family. Participation in the family carries with it a vast collection of historical baggage that shapes that participation. Tilghman looks to this historical weight as the essence of family: When one claims familial ties, one claims also the long line of familial action and memory that defines the character of that family.

Tilghman also explores what it means to act as father within the family. He examines the difficulties of acting individually as a father to a son, while at the same time carrying, almost genetically, the fact of being a son to one’s own father. How does one exert a will of one’s own, and how does one judge the rightness of that willful act? How does one resolve the in-betweenness of being both father and son without repudiating one or the other of these roles? Tilghman understands the inherent tragedy of parenthood, of fatherhood: that one inevitably missteps and misjudges, that so very much is left to guess and hope and instinct.

What redeems the familial circumstance is the fact that love generally operates through the mess one makes of things. Plagued as he is by his own failures as a private, desiring man, Dan Williams still arrives at a kind of resolution—an epiphany, even—by the story’s end. The wind that brings the storm, and his own apprehensiveness over the condition of his children out on the bay, also brings a cleansing of Dan’s vision. He perceives the confirmation of all that he has done, the work of his days. Tilghman asserts an almost spiritual presence in the family that works toward wholeness and that flows through the past and the present, keeping all connected and continuous.