Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The title of this novel comes from the eighth chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus cures a child because of the faith of his father, a centurion, but warns that those without such faith will be driven into the outer dark, the “place of wailing and grinding of teeth.” In large degree this is the world of the novel. The sun rarely shines in this book. It is “bleak and pallid” when it does, and the sky is “colorless.” It often rains, and much of the action takes place at night. There are numerous characters who wail in the outer dark, but Culla is the most obvious outcast. Unlike the father in Matthew, who comes to Jesus to heal his child, Culla denies his son in the presence of the judgment figure and thus causes the boy’s death. Rinthy, although she, too, is denied her child, perhaps finds peace in the end when she falls asleep in the woods at the camp where the boy is killed.

The end of the novel, however, takes place years later. Culla is still wandering the “dead land,” without faith or hope, on a road that leads to a swamp. He meets a blind man, whom he mistakes for a preacher. The blind man tells him that “they’s darksome ways afoot in this world” but also offers Culla a form of reassurance. “I’m at the Lord’s work,” he says, and asks Culla what he needs. The blind man is the last of the searchers in the book. He is looking for “a feller . . . that nobody knowed what was wrong with. . . . I always did want to find that feller. . . . And tell him. If somebody don’t tell him he never will have no rest.” The man he seeks is Culla, but Culla turns away and hides, even though the blind man follows him with his silent, smiling stare. Culla, who never prays, never loves, never accepts, is left a solitary, tormented figure.

Thus, for all its grotesque violence and horror, Outer Dark is a seriously moral book. It argues for the existence of sin and evil, and it holds that the failure to admit sin is death, but it also suggests the possibility of grace, as evidenced by the blind man at the end, although such grace can blast the unprepared.