Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Stephen Dixon has taken one of the oldest plot ideas in Western literature and given it a refreshingly urbanized setting and treatment: a young man’s call to adventure after he has experienced a spiritual vision that lucidly articulates what he needs to find to make him happy and fulfilled. In “Frog Dances,” Dixon takes a middle-aged man embarking on his spiritual journey almost too late in life. Dixon, who habitually uses the elements of chance to structure his narratives, shows Howard Tetch accidentally looking through a window as he casually walks down a street in Manhattan. The scene of a father holding a tiny infant in his arms and dancing around the room to the slow movement of a Gustav Mahler symphony bespeaks a blissful, edenic contentment that is so compelling that it constitutes a vision of the ideal that Howard must pursue. That vision becomes for Howard an ideal that he must realize in a literal way or he will never become a fully integrated human being. Howard finally understands what is missing in his life—love, a wife, and a family. The image of the dance as a ritual celebrating the unity of all of life’s activities and expectations drives him to find a mate who can fill in the emptiness of his life.

The story is a case study of the overly analytical professor who has virtually lost any feeling for the simpler and more profound yearnings of the human soul. Howard’s academic mind, like that of T. S. Eliot’s neurasthenic J. Alfred Prufrock, another victim of a similar kind of paralysis of analysis, carries him further into the abstract processes of his own mind and separates him from the simple but fulfilling joys of married life. Once he is reengaged with his feelings by the image of the dancing father, he is able to enter the human race, meet Denise, and fulfill the ideal that his quest had proposed for him. Dixon’s story suggests that the imagination knows what it needs to grow and flourish, and if one follows it and the authentic feelings surrounding those compelling, visionary images, one will find those necessary ingredients that will make one’s life whole and happy.