Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The most important theme of the novel is the maturation of Thomas; that maturation takes place in a special world and in special circumstances. First, Thomas does not have a mother or a father to guide him or introduce him to the world. He is taught by surrogates such as his grandfather, the peasants, and Romuald. He is a product of the entire valley, not only one part.

While this world that makes up the Issa Valley may seem on the surface to be a timeless place, the outside world does impinge upon the valley. The history of Lithuania touches nearly every character in the book, including Thomas. The war and the division of the land are also outside influences which change the lives of the upper and lower classes. Balthazar is driven mad because of these changes, and the former position of the Surkonts is about to change.

Another theme of the novel is the natural world. Miosz lovingly describes the valley and its flora and fauna, its soil and its lazy river, and, above all, its forest. Characters are defined by how they relate to the land. Romuald, for example, lives by killing the animals within the forest. Grandfather Surkont will do whatever he can to hold on to the land his ancestors possessed. Magdelana, who commits suicide after an affair with the local priest, is said to be haunting the land. Thomas is, however, singled out for his responsive relationship with the land; he is described as being “wild” about the spring flowers and is said “to immerse his gaze in them.” He learns from the forest by observing everything within it and by drawing a map of his “kingdom” and filling a notebook with names and pictures of birds and flowers. He also acquires a moral sense from nature when he has regrets over killing a squirrel and when he refuses to kill a buck. Nature is a substitute for his absent father and mother and is his best guide and friend.