Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Trumpet” is considered by some critics to be Walter de la Mare’s finest tale, but all find it difficult to classify. Unlike many others, it is not a ghost story, yet it is permeated by a ghostly atmosphere. Strictly speaking, it is not a moral fable, and although it is about children, it is not children’s literature. Perhaps it is best termed a symbolic tragedy: the failure of the individual to pierce the veil between the known and the unknown, the natural and the supernatural.

In the ghostly silence of the moonlit church, the marble angel is as real as are the little boys. The recitation of stories of angels in the Bible authenticates their existence while the trumpet due to announce the Last Day poses questions about life, death, and an afterlife for the believer and the unbeliever alike. Mysticism is graphic here. Only Mrs. Sullivan’s conversation offers a criterion of normality.

The clue to one meaning of this haunting tragedy lies in its two epigraphs: “For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.” and “And he said . . . am I my brother’s keeper?” The two boys are half brothers but do not know it. This suggests that all men are brothers but fail to realize it and to behave as brothers should. Although Philip is the pathetic embodiment of arrogance and cruelty, he is understood and worshiped by the great-hearted, happy, mischievous imp, Dick. Despite social distinctions and differing levels of education, brotherly love is possible, but the price is high. Dick dies in an effort to gratify his brother’s obsessive urge for knowledge of life’s mysteries.