Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Seven Madmen is an existential novel, a novel full of myth and magic; at the same time, it includes realistic descriptions of social circumstances. Indeed, the fact that no reader can say definitively what the novel is “about” is what gives it its lasting appeal. New meanings and themes continue to surface as new readers come to the work.

One of the work’s most unmistakable statements is that modern man, without the guidance provided by religion and tradition, is an unstable creature, easily swept up in totalitarian movements, mass manias, and occultism. Yet the character who upholds traditional values, Elsa, is not very appealing. Indeed, the only figures mentioned as leading spiritually meaningful lives belong to earlier eras. The novel’s comment on twentieth century life is a sour one, for its characters experience a fullness of meaning only when they are engaged in dangerous and self-deluded enterprises or lost in vivid fantasies.

Another strong theme is the power of imagination. The novel contains numerous tributes to earlier times in which human beings were transformed by a transcendent vision—for example, the days of chivalry. Even in the impoverished modern era, individual characters have brief moments when they rise above the banality of their circumstances through inspired eloquence.

Even though The Seven Madmen often leaves the reader unsure as to the reality of the events of the plot, it is a realistic work in two important ways. First, it accurately describes the Buenos Aires of the late 1920’s, with special attention to the precarious situation of the lower-middle class in the overheated, poorly balanced economy of the times. Second, it shows, through fiction, some of the forces behind the 1930 military takeover. Indeed, the resemblance to real-world events is so strong that Arlt needed to add a note to post-1930 editions pointing out that he wrote the novel before the military coup and had been unaware of the gathering conspiracy.