The novel’s title expresses both its central theme and its central irony: Against all odds, people survive hardship and tragedy and continue to struggle and succeed, as “the living.” Because so many of the major and minor characters die along the way, however, the perseverance of “the living” seems both a mockery of and memorial to the dead. Yet the novel’s theme is precisely the issue of how to continue living in a world that is often physically inhospitable as well as emotionally unbearable. Clare Fishburn, whose life becomes even richer and more precious after Obenchain’s death threat, embodies this particular spirit of the living—he no longer takes anything for granted, from the savor of the food he eats to the love of his wife and family. One of the novel’s most important messages is that people can only live life to the fullest when they truly realize the imminence of death.
“The living” can also be interpreted as referring to one’s occupation: In this harsh climate that is also rich with natural resources, people struggle to make a living. Ironically, the area’s most profitable resource, timber, was originally seen only as a hindrance to clearing the land for farming. Throughout the novel, the environment is both beautiful and bleak, at times even destructive. Unlike the Indian tribes who first inhabited the area and who lived from the land, the white settlers work against the land, trying to shape it into their idea of civilization.
The Living is Dillard’s first novel, and at times it reads more like nonfiction than fiction—dense in natural detail and often nonlinear in its plot development. The landscape is as important as the characters; it...
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