Trilobites Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Breece D’J Pancake’s title provides an important clue to the story’s meaning. Trilobites are Paleozoic marine arthropods, long extinct, with segmented bodies separated by furrows into three distinct lobes. In several parts of North America, fossilized remains of these arthropods are buried under many layers of rock and soil. Colly’s unsuccessful searches for these ancient stone animals parallel his futile attempts to uncover and make sense of his own past. Just as the trilobites suffered extinction, Colly is experiencing many painful losses—the death of his father, estrangement from his mother and girlfriend, and impending eviction from the land he loves but has found unproductive. Throughout the story, Colly probes layers of memory just as he has dug through layers of sediment. In both searches, however, he uncovers little of lasting value that can link his unstable past with his uncertain future. Ironically, Colly can neither uncover a trilobite nor sensibly end his search. Thus, his quest is both enticing and inevitably disappointing. It becomes an emblem of gnawing aspiration that cannot be realized.

Many of Pancake’s stories focus on the impoverished lives of West Virginia miners, truck drivers, or minimum-wage gas pumpers. With a bottom-land farm and relatively comfortable house (rather than a rusty mobile home on a jagged ridge), Colly is apparently in a better financial position than that of many Pancake characters. Even so, Colly suffers from the spiritual poverty that pervades Pancake’s fiction. In many of Pancake’s stories, topography is destiny. The steep mountains and deep valleys of West Virginia allow one to look either down or up, but they permit little horizontal vision. In such an enclosed environment, characters seldom see clearly beyond looming impediments. Instead, they all too often simply stare downward in a mood of resignation. Colly’s love of his home valley leads him to scorn the industrial wasteland of Akron, and he has dreams of travel to more fulfilling locations. Thus, Colly does manage to look beyond the enclosing mountains, but his itinerary and plans for the future remain extremely vague, and he has limited inner resources for use in fulfilling those dreams.