Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Frank O’Connor’s “The Man of the World” is an initiation story, in which Larry is led to the moment in which he will be introduced into the world. His guide, however, is only a year older than he is, and has a premature and jaded view of the world. What Larry is initiated into is merely a loss of innocence, rather than the expected gain of maturity. He passes beyond the anticipated maturity to adult shame and guilt.

Another theme is the reversal of the observer and the observed. In spying on the young couple, Larry thinks that he is a privileged observer. With Jimmy’s guidance, he is acquiring knowledge by looking down on people who are living what they think is a private life. He, however, becomes aware of being watched by some higher power, a god who sees and truly knows all, in contrast to the limited and weary false sophistication of Jimmy Leary. A recognition of the reduced role he will now play in the world follows this perception, and there is a permanent diminishment of his sense of self.

The story is also about the consequences of knowledge. Larry loses his innocence forever at the end of the story. He attempts to refuse the inappropriate sophistication that is represented by Jimmy, but he cannot recover his innocence. He has tasted of the tree of knowledge and can never return to his innocent childhood. There thus seems to be a use of the Eden myth to define and describe Larry’s change in the story. He has been cast out of his innocent and blessed world of appearances, and he can never return to that state.

A related theme is religious. The presence of an omniscient power is revealed as observing what Larry has been doing. As a result of his awareness of the presence of this deity, Larry can never escape the guilt and shame that he feels. Even if he determines that he will never be as sophisticated as Jimmy, he cannot purge the feeling of someone looking down on him and judging all his actions. He has entered a world of sin and shame that he must live with; the initiation robs him of an innocence he can never recover.