Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This short but highly intense story contains several of the common themes around which Stephen Dixon has built a highly respected literary reputation. The enemies in this story are the bureaucratic systems that function beyond human and humane control. The unnamed narrator first appears as an emotionally disturbed person because he wants immediate closure to his obligations as a married man after his beloved wife dies. He demands such radical closure, however, because he cannot bear the consciousness that death forces him to confront or the memory of his happy years with his wife. His grief is so desperate and potentially overwhelming, he attempts suicide near the story’s conclusion. The death of his beloved has canceled out any residual meaning that mechanistic, bureaucratic systems need to operate and maintain an orderly society. The system that needs to continue functioning in this story is one that must dispose of dead bodies in an efficient and legal manner and tries to utilize their organs to keep people alive. What is absent in this kind of system is any consideration of the depth of the grief and loss of the widower and the existential emptiness that threatens to overcome him. The hospital sustains life through a system that lacks the capacity to philosophize over the meaning of life or the significance of love. The emotionally detached bureaucratic system forces the narrator to confront two of life’s most profoundly disturbing facts: the horror of consciousness and the inability to escape the memory of the past. It is to Stephen Dixon’s credit as an artist that he can treat, with redeeming but sardonic wit, the same themes that Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus dramatized so bleakly in some of the darkest books of the twentieth century.