Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Barry Targan’s “The Rags of Time” illuminates the conflicts of a settled, middle-aged man confronted with a strong impulse to risk sexual infidelity, tied to his memories of his high school attraction to an unobtainable cheerleader and his son’s dramatic sexual initiation. Neither Thomas nor his wife has a great sexual appetite; his life has been devoid of passion with the exception of his worshiping the cheerleader from afar. His life also has been relatively safe and risk-free, except for a long-ago incident in which he was buried for several minutes under a snowbank. Secure in an academic career that has progressed on schedule since his first teaching job, Thomas has no interest in writing anything other than articles on arcane topics for scholarly journals. He prefers interpreting the thoughts and feelings of the risk-takers to taking the risks himself. Content in his tender but placid marriage, he is unsettled to find himself bewitched by a bright but indifferent student. When Fay makes herself available, however, his focus switches from her as a person to the idea of the adventure itself.

Neil’s experience of losing his virginity sharply contrasts with his father’s adolescent fantasizing about the cheerleader; in Thomas’s high school fantasies, the girl he desired was important, but unobtainable, whereas Cecily is easily obtainable, but unimportant. Neil’s adolescent experience emotionally mirrors his father’s adult experience with Fay, however; both males are more interested in the experience itself than in the person. Neither male seems likely to suffer any harmful consequences from his action, but each of the females is punished—Fay by getting a lower grade than she expects; Cecily by the double standard that brands her conduct as shameful while that of Neil is a source of amusement to his parents’ friends, and, his father expects, will be admired by his friends at school.