Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The nickname of Stigman’s word processor suggests his novel’s theme and meaning. Ecclesiastes, the most somber book in the Old Testament, is best remembered for the passage, “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity.” While proclaiming that life is meaningless, Ecclesiastes also contains memorable poetry such as “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them. While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain.” Roth is implying that life is meaningless, that everyone is doomed to lose everything, including everyone they have ever loved. Old age is a curse; one ends up lonely, infirm, unable to enjoy any of life’s simple pleasures, haunted by regrets, facing the terror of death. Nevertheless, life is full of drama and beauty that deserve to be appreciated and, if possible, commemorated. Life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, triumph and failure, hope and fear, confidence and perplexity.

As a lifelong agnostic, Roth is trying to get at the unadorned truth about his own life and life in general. As a dying old man, with nothing but his memories, he has no way to get through his waking hours except by writing about the past. There is beauty in truth, but getting at the real truth is the hardest thing a writer can attempt. It requires resisting the temptation to leave out unpleasant matters and to adorn one’s work with false sentiments.

The title Mercy of a Rude Stream is borrowed from the disillusioned Cardinal Wolsey’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1612-1613) expressing hatred of the “vain pomp and glory of this world” and complaining of being left, “Weary and old with service, to the/ Mercy of a rude stream, that must forever hide me.”