Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

If The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By merely traces the development of an idiosyncratic and abnormal mind, its truth is hardly general enough to remain interesting. The dominance of trains as an image in the book suggests, however, that the paradoxical nature of freedom is at the heart of the novel. In Gronigen, the passing trains symbolize for Kees a world of freedom that he has never known. Simenon, however, uses the image less simply. Train journeys mark all stages of the narrative: The evening train takes Kees to the fatal interview with Pamela; on the night train, he escapes to Paris. He returns to Paris by train to confront and assault Jeanne. A train is at the center of his plan to escape by suicide, but instead it takes him to captivity in Paris. Another train carries him to confinement in Holland.

The train is therefore a paradoxical image of freedom, for Kees is no freer than was Oedipus. Trains run on predetermined paths, and derailment is disaster. So it is with Kees. What seems to him to be an escape from his fate leads him back to it, for humans run the ways determined by their innate selves and by the laws, conventions, and habits which dictate the relationships of society. Even those outside the law are not exempt. Kees himself observes that Louis’ gang is tied to the garage at Juvisy as Mums is to the house in Gronigen. Total freedom is at best a figment of the imagination and at worst a destructive dream.