Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Called a brilliant Jamesian classic by some reviewers and a predictable piece of popular slick fiction by others, “In the Gloaming” received considerable attention in the three years after it was first published; not only was it the subject of two film treatments, including a highly praised 1997 HBO television drama, but also John Updike chose it for inclusion in the The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999).

Although the word “AIDS” is never used in the story and the son’s homosexuality is not a thematic issue, except for an oblique reference that it may have been one of the ways in which Laird disappointed his father, it is probably true that if he had come home to die of any other ailment, the story would not have been filmed or so highly honored. Although it seems to avoid social issues to focus on the universal dilemma of facing death, the underlying AIDS/homosexual theme certainly supplies much of the story’s timely power.

Even though the story depends on the AIDS issue, Alice Elliott Dark avoids exploiting it by focusing throughout on the mother’s emotions about her son’s inevitable death. She also avoids lapsing into sentimentality by making both the mother and the son witty and sophisticated enough to banter about the process of dying. The most risky, and therefore perhaps the most successful, thematic tension in the story is the fact that the mother engages in a flirtatious relationship with her...

(The entire section is 584 words.)