Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As an initiation story, the novel features what the narrator learns on his journey from childhood to adulthood. The varieties of good and evil he encounters form the major themes of the story. Of these, hatred, fear, filth, rot, hunger, and thirst are important evils, and love, knowledge, and satisfaction are important kinds of good. Moreover, confinement is an overriding theme, and it often defines the dramatic context which presents evil and good to the narrator. He is often confined against his will. For example, the Smelling Ghost carries him about in a bag filthy and odoriferous, he is stuck in a pitcher where he is discomfited by hunger, thirst, and rotten blood, and he is imprisoned and brutalized in the bodies of a camel, a horse, and a cow. He is also confined by ritual when he is worshiped in the pitcher, baptized by “fire and hot water” before his wedding in the church of “Reverend Devil,” and buried alive in a spider-web cocoon by the Spider-eating Ghosts. On the other hand, the narrator is sometimes happily confined (mostly in the latter part of the novel) by hospitality, in which he indulges for long stretches of time until the greater good of returning home reasserts itself. Important examples of this hospitality occur when the Super Lady offers the narrator the pleasures of the body, when his cousin offers him the pleasures of the mind, and when the old ghost in the eighteenth town of ghosts offers him shelter and he returns the favor by using the magic he has acquired as a “full-fledged ghost” to earn food for his host.

Confinement in the end controls the freedom for which the narrator longs throughout the story, for though he may need to free himself from confinements which injure him, he also needs to be free to return to the confinement which belongs to him as a brother and son in the human world.