The Living is less a repository of meaning than it is a reclaiming of the experience of the early Western settlers. Dillard investigates the relation of individuals to their past and their heritage as well as to the strange, novel, synthetic society that begins to form them anew. She recounts the incidents in such a way that the reader begins to perceive the recurring patterns of nineteenth century life in Bellingham Bay: racial hatred and tyranny, personal loss, both human and economic, and the ways in which characters respond to and internalize the landscape.
Dillard immerses readers sensually into the Western milieu. Readers smell the omnipresent smoke of smoldering tree trunks, feel the mist and fog that shroud the mountains during most of the year, mire down in the mud of the town and the woods, and feel the horror of the exotic in the discovery of a badly mummified native corpse or the unknown perils of going about daily business (as when a tree falls and kills a child). Similarly, the portrait of each character shows the internal mental workings, the particular slant that this individual gives to interpreting the new Western life. Telling philosophical patterns recur. Several characters display a strange combination of social conscience and desire for seclusion, symbolized respectively by Mt. Baker (as hope, aspiration) and by the canopy of evergreens that entraps and isolates. All the characters feel that the West offers them both an opportunity and a test of their personal mettle. The novel is simultaneously about the changes that individuals can and do make in the long run and also about how impervious nature and history are to these minuscule personal efforts. Patience, suffering, and hope are embodied in recurring biblical and poetic quotations that emerge at crucial points and give the novel its title: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Human effort is always new and admirable; it is also never original and doomed to be stunted by perverse human nature and the impersonal forces of history, time, and landscape.