Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Lost Language of Cranes is a novel, above all, about identity and empathy. The main characters face the challenges of defining themselves as clearly and honestly as possible and of choosing the terms, the aspects of life—relationships, jobs, sexuality, race, gender—by which their sense of self is established.

For Rose and Owen, marriage and home are implicit to identity. When they tell Philip that they might give up their apartment, he says that he simply cannot imagine them living anywhere else. Rose examines herself in the mirror, imagines herself in others’ situations, and thinks about how people perceive her. While she and Owen both know that their intimacy has faded, neither is willing to question the basic value of their relationship.

For Philip and Owen, homosexuality is the issue through which identity is explored. In his secret life, Owen assumes the anonymity provided by gay film houses and bars; his self-image merges with those of the sex-driven men in the pornographic films he watches. He is painfully aware of playing roles in his marriage and job, of hiding his true identity in subtle but telling ways.

Philip at first locates his identity wholly in his love for Eliot, a love that is self-degrading and ultimately based in fantasy. It is only through the process of understanding himself and, more important, expressing himself more honestly to the world around him that he arrives at a way of loving that does not destroy his sense of self.

Communication becomes important as the manner in which identity is expressed. When Owen builds enough courage to call a man whom he encountered anonymously, the man misunderstands Owen’s name and calls him “Bowen”; the mistake symbolizes the inevitable distortion of identity that comes with repression and deception. Philip searches through Derek’s books for clues to Eliot’s elusive identity. Jerene’s...

(The entire section is 785 words.)