Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The final story in Birds of America: Stories (1998), “Terrific Mother” offers a coda for the entire collection in which many of the collection’s themes and images are elaborated on and given a final reprise. This story follows Lorrie Moore’s famous “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” a story detailing the dilemmas faced by a mother whose infant son is diagnosed with cancer. In many ways, Adrienne embodies the concerns explored in the book’s other stories. Her life is disrupted by the persistent contingency that undermines human experience. Her lengthy trauma after the shock of the baby’s accidental death exiles her from community, and during this period of mourning, she is nakedly exposed to existential doubt and metaphysical lawlessness. Learning that the only authentic act available to people is forgiveness—both for themselves and also for others—Adrienne has an insight that could offer a kind of provisional redemptive knowledge to the characters who occupy the other stories in the collection.

Very different from the project-oriented academics at the villa, Adrienne is adrift. If people generally understand their lives as containing choice and a certain degree of predictability owing to the apparent laws of cause and effect, Adrienne finds herself cut loose from daily life and its organizational structures because of the baby’s accidental death, an event that signals cosmic chaos. Her mental state has more in common with the unconscious than the rationality through which the scholars govern themselves. Adrienne is often disconnected from the present; existing in a prolonged state of trauma, her mind gives her glances of the dead infant as a ghostly toddler walking alongside her dead parents. As the masseuse rubs her feet with oil and covers her in a blanket, Adrienne feels that she is the baby Jesus but also simultaneously the grown man and the corpse after the crucifixion. However, Adrienne does not believe that she is a messianic figure. Rather, she perceives her life not so much as a gradually unfolding linear narrative but as a kind of anarchic dream in which certain associative images and philosophical problems—the nature of pain, the boundaries of the self, and the relation between appearance and reality—recur in endlessly fluctuating forms, defying a method of understanding that depends on chronological progression and causal connections.