Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The primary themes of the story can be formulated as a series of conflicts: emotion or spirit versus convention or habit, the aesthetic versus the pragmatic, communion versus loneliness or self-centeredness, and self-knowledge versus willful ignorance. Each of the businesspeople is jarred out of his dull, self-centered routine by the intrusion of nature and by a sudden, piercing awareness of beauty. When each businessperson becomes slightly uneasy about appearing to be romantic—an impractical admirer of beauty—in his neighbor’s eyes, however, the brief communion of the pair is broken off, and each one returns to the world of practical events and financial matters reported in and symbolized by the morning newspaper each one carries. Each man resumes living within the restrictive confines of his row house, his daily routine, and his society’s conventions (so restrictive that because the neighbors’ wives have not met, they have not met socially, either, though they have lived next door to each other for five years).
The flight from self-knowledge to willful ignorance is suggested in the story’s last sentence: Nilson refuses to analyze the unaccustomed emotions that have disturbed him, instead deflecting his attention to his morning newspaper. Failing to acknowledge that he is bothered by the thought of communing with another human being and by the recognition of an aesthetic or romantic side of himself that is mirrored in Tandram, Nilson escapes...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
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Mr. Nilson is alienated from both nature and humankind. Although he praises himself for taking a walk in the square on a beautiful morning, he takes his newspaper with him. Still, the strange sensation does not abate, and he suspects it might be caused by something he ate. Upon encountering the quince tree, his first instinct is to find out exactly what species it is, rather than simply enjoy the flowers. Towards the end of the story, when the blackbird resumes its singing, "that queer sensation, that choky feeling in his throat" returns, further underscoring his alienation from nature.
Related to Mr. Nilson's alienation from nature is the alienation he feels from humankind, which is demonstrated by his stilted exchange with Mr. Tandram. Though they have been next-door neighbors for five years, they have not yet introduced themselves to one another. Mr. Nilson blames this on his marital status—inferring that one of his wife's duties is to protect him from unnecessary social intrusions. The men's exchange in front of the quince tree is indirect and somewhat empty; it also suggests the desire on the part of both Mr Nilson and Mr. Tandram for something more: "Nice fellow, this, I rather like him," thinks Mr. Nilson. These successful businessmen seem to yearn, at some level, for more meaningful connection. Yet, both fear appearing foolish for exhibiting the feelings that nature has produced in them: ''It struck him suddenly that Mr....
(The entire section is 623 words.)