Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Larsen and all the characters, in reflection of and in relation to him, face an existential void: Their lives lack purpose, and they are reduced to doing what Larsen in meditation refers to as “one thing and another and another, all alien, without worrying about whether they turned out well or badly.” The need to maintain narrative impetus does generate some tension between the characters’ faith in the future and the sense that there is no future, but the essential tone is a lucid pessimism, the atmosphere one of disintegration and death-in-life. The shipyard acts as the central metaphor of these themes right up to Larsen’s final departure from Puerto Astillero, when, “deaf to the din of the boat, his eager ear could still make out the whisper of moss growing among the piles of bricks and that of rust devouring metal.” Throughout, the human body is visualized in decay; interaction among the characters, as pure theater devoid of the vitality of real life. Galvez’s suicide in this context has seemed like an attainment of authenticity.

Positive values in the Onettian world exist mainly as absence or nostalgia. This world lacks true community, sense of purpose, and any conventional religious sense of a power that would confer higher meaning of life. Some remote nostalgia for religion can be felt in the abundant (albeit degraded and ironic) Christian allegory of the novel, which appears not only in the names of characters but also in their functions. Larsen, the debased Christ figure,...

(The entire section is 617 words.)