Round by Round Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Conrad Aiken’s story centers on human conflict and the possibility of cooperation, and it develops this focus on several levels of human interaction. To begin with there is the fight itself, the subject of the reporter’s story. As he writes about it, he realizes that it is not a simple combat, not simply one man pitted against another, but an entire network of interlocking conflicts. There is, on the simplest level, the participation of the crowd, from those who go implicitly to see someone physically beaten, to those who side with one fighter or the other, to those who bait the loser, to the fiancé who stands by her man. There is also in the match more than mere physical competition: Will contends with will, intelligence with intelligence. Finally, the match is not over at the end; the fighters are not even particularly hostile to each other: Fighting is their business, and they immediately look ahead to the rematch. The conflict thus becomes self-perpetuating; further, it is peculiarly human.

Aiken brings this into contrast with three other elements in the story: the relationship between the reporter and his colleague Cush, the photograph of the James family, and the frustration of the reporter with his girlfriend. First, he and Cush work together in fellowship, sharing whiskey, problems, common interests, and common pursuits. Though their work could bring them into competition, they respect and help each other. The photograph deepens this sense of the possibility overcoming the limitations of the self. No conflict is apparent here; the figures are serene in repose, sympathetic to the pangs of existence, but somehow capable of transcending them and uniting with all humanity. This kind of peace is available only to those who enter imaginatively into the souls of others.

His conflict with his girlfriend does not have this kind of intuitive understanding. Because it lacks this, it parallels the physical combat of the fight; it has rounds and bouts, with temporary winners and losers, but it can never be resolved and will never end.