Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although character development and theme are always closely related, in Small Changes they are intertwined to an unusual degree. Every change and response of a character is both a contribution to that character’s growth and a support for the integration of the personal and political—a central theme of the novel. Piercy’s choice of setting for Small Changes also provides a natural vehicle for this theme. The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of social upheaval in America, and the novel illustrates the personal and political interrelationships of most of the issues that troubled the consciences of the youth of the time: the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, academia versus activism, research versus military applications, alternative life-styles, ecology, natural foods, drug use, and so on. As the title suggests, the societal impact of some changes is not necessarily in proportion to the way in which society measures or values change. When one person refuses to accept an oppressive sex role, she or he has made a measurable contribution to the movement, even if that change is seen as “small” (insignificant) by other members of the society.

Of all the elements of change working on the characters, it is the women’s movement which must be considered the central issue of the novel, not because it is inherently more important than war protest or ecology but because, without it, half the population of potential activists would be limited in the extent to which they could commit themselves to any cause. One of many examples of this is Wanda Rosario, who, before meeting Beth Walker, was a significant force in various antiestablishment protests until she married another activist; then she became Joe’s wife first and catalyst for social change only in her spare time—her most notable contribution to the revolution being the care of Joe’s house and children. In Marge Piercy’s view, this is an irony which should arouse anger.


(The entire section is 806 words.)