Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal theme of the novel is the conflict between life and death, enacted in the drama of Flesh’s own physical deterioration. As in A Bad Man (1967) and George Mills (1982), Elkin characteristically demonstrates in The Franchiser the connection between the body and the world, inside and outside, by paralleling Flesh’s personal difficulties with the problems of a nation suffering the complications of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Arab oil crisis. On a political level, Flesh represents not so much “Everyman” as “the spirit of the age,” or an America beset by illnesses in the body politic and overly concerned with the meaning of its own destiny.

Yet the novel works, too, on a metaphysical level: Flesh is body and voice seeking purpose in a hostile, materialistic environment. Above all, Flesh seeks out that which would survive the failings of body and state; if he finds it, it is the peculiar phenomenon of “conversation” that he overhears at the end of the novel. As Ben listens at the doors of his guests, he hears the often ludicrous conversions of, in some cases, perverse physical desire transformed into language; he witnesses the metamorphosis of flesh into voice, and the intermixture of voices in conversation. What is communicated in every instance is not only the paradox of the body—which, throughout Elkin’s fiction, is the physical symptom of its own death—but also the incarnation of a desire for life...

(The entire section is 570 words.)