Although The Sweet Hereafter is obviously exploring the various ways people deal with catastrophic loss, the novel is ultimately pursuing the universal questions underlying tragedy: Why did this accident happen? Who is responsible? If there are no answers to these questions, the world of cause and effect, of order and meaning, is threatened.
Russell Banks proposes all the obvious reasons for the accident—budget-driven civil officials and school board, a speeding bus driver, negligent bus maintenance— and then, through the various characters’ accounts, eliminates them as causes. If there is a culprit, it is life itself.
Another effect achieved by the use of multiple narrators to tell the story of the impact of the accident on their lives and on the rest of the town is to heighten the reader’s awareness of the inviolable nature of the individual. Indeed, after listening to their voices, the reader becomes aware of the reason for the lack of objective data in relating their view of the accident: The psychological histories of the narrators preclude objectivity.
The fourth narrator, the lawyer Mitchell Stephens, is the catalyst that tries to force those involved in the accident (bus driver, parents, child victim) to turn their anger and confusion into a force by pursuing a lawsuit.
The author softens the somewhat depressing themes and content of this novel by entitling the work The Sweet Hereafter. After being shunned by the townspeople and then cheered, Dolores Driscoll expresses the theme of trauma when she says: “All of us—Nichole, I, the children who survived the accident, and the children who didn’t—it was as if we were the citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter. . . .”
The use of the metaphor of the Demolition Derby to inspire a change in the townspeople’s feelings about the accused culprit, Dolores Driscoll, highlights the irrational behavior of people. On the other hand, the incident briefly restores the reader’s confidence that people can love more quickly than they can hate.