Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story suggests that Palmer’s enthusiastic personality, along with the inspiration of first love, had an indelible effect on the grandmother’s character and that his accidental encounter with her shaped the future course of her life. It was while she was drawing portrait after portrait of Palmer in the boardwalk studio, and falling in love with him at the same time, that she learned to become a real artist, rather than merely competent at her craft. Without Palmer she might have remained a mediocre artist or have given up art completely. The most important words in Barry Targan’s story are the grandmother’s final assessment of her wartime romance: “We all need—must have—someone like that, or else nothing will ever make enough sense.”

One of the many feelings that Targan tries to communicate is how World War II affected individual lives. In a small way, the short story “Old Light” does something similar to what Leo Tolstoy attempts in his enormous novel Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States became involved in wartime arenas covering thousands of square miles of the Pacific Ocean and Europe, North Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean. Millions of men drafted into the armed services had to be converted from civilians to warriors practically overnight. Atlantic City was one of the places the government chose as a training area because it had numerous...

(The entire section is 495 words.)