Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The main theme of The Morning Watch is that growing up is both painful and joyful. The theme is elaborated not only through action and characters but also through powerful symbols, especially in the novella’s final section. Crossing the woods, Richard finds a locust shell stuck to a tree. In its development, the locust has split its back and crawled out of the old shell, whose form reminds Richard of a human embyro. The shell suggests the traumas of birth and of metamorphosis—even the aeons of evolution which the human embyro recapitulates. Richard thinks that crawling out of one’s back is just as painful as crucifixion, but another symbol, the beautiful snake which has just shed its skin, suggests that the results are more encouraging. Richard admires and identifies with the snake, especially its aura of dangerous virility. He therefore hates to kill it, but in doing so he acquires some of its potent medicine.

Although Richard assumes a crucifixion position when he dives to the bottom of the Sand Cut, the feats celebrating his development are more reminiscent of American Indian ritual than of the High Church. Altogether, there is a movement toward nature and away from religion in The Morning Watch—or at least away from versions of religion which are effeminate or typical of stunted adolescence, wherein religion is a sort of womb or smothering mother to which some of the boys cling. Richard’s association of religion with his...

(The entire section is 431 words.)