Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

This novel can be understood on at least three levels. On the simplest level, it is the story of a snoopy, sensitive man who wants to find out what is happening in the lives of two other people. This man, who shares his hypersensitivity with the daughter and to some extent with the father, fears tropisms and wants to be convinced that they do not exist. Yet he enjoys his “visions,” as he calls the scenes in which he imagines the protagonists. He shares a mystical link with them through these scenes, and he is strangely sad when it is cut by Dumontet.

The second level of interpretation of Portrait of a Man Unknown is as the story of language and how it is used to oversimplify and obscure reality. Language is a phenomenon which is shared by a group. Groups of people who hold the same values, expressed as cliches, interact constantly with the main characters. In the epic battle between father and daughter, each is surrounded by a classic chorus of invisible supporters—a group of victimized women for the daughter and some businessmen for the father.

Throughout the novel the characters move from identification with a group to individual defiance of the group and back to identification with the group. Individual experience never fits exactly into the words that are offered by the group to cover it, so the individual tries to define himself better by rejecting the group labels. Ultimately this proves impossible and the fear of solitude...

(The entire section is 470 words.)