Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As suggested by the story’s title, the protagonist, Kraft, has a passion for history. There is double meaning and irony in Stephen Minot’s use of the word “passion,” which is often associated with strong sexual or romantic feelings. Kraft himself is confused about his own passion: He mistakes the intense envy that he feels for Thea’s simple, uncomplicated life for sexual desire. Significantly, he fails fully to unite with her sexually. His passion for history, his inability to stay focused and resist the pull to see their moment of lovemaking from a future moment, makes true sexual passion impossible.

Minot uses the three characters of the story to represent past, present, and future. Old Mr. McKnight is the past, living “in the previous century.” Thea is the present; as she tells Kraft, “Now is now.” These two characters, free of historical perspective, are content in their place and time. They seem to accept their lives and their work, their belief in themselves undisturbed by outside opinion. Kraft, however, is tortured by his overarching perspective—one forever in the future that keeps him continually looking back. Because he is always in the future, he even looks “back” on the present. To him, every moment in time is either history or potential history. Thus, his erudition prevents his full embrace of life’s moments. Rather than liberating him or enriching his experience, Kraft’s historical perspective binds him to a point in time that is always removed from his present.

Finally, there is a darkness and an irony to Kraft’s problem. He professes a philosophy that he fails to embrace. While he claims to value ordinary individuals—as opposed to the “big names”—who make history, he contradicts himself by condescendingly calling them the “little people.” He regards Thea and Mr. McKnight as two of these little people and hopes to benefit somehow by spending time with them. Clearly, he does not see himself as he sees the McKnights. Illustrating another of his double standards, Kraft buys the large tract of land with the quaint old house that neighbors the McKnights’ house. A vacation house on a thousand acres is hardly consistent with his espoused radical values.