Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One main theme of the novel is the clash between a version of Christianity which seems appropriate to the pioneer conquest of a new land, Grandmother’s harsh Calvinism, and the kinds of thinking which seem appropriate to sustaining a core of values into the as yet unknown new age. The first half of the novel emphasizes this conflict as Ada tries to find the moral way to be happy in a world where the threats to happiness are no longer the oppressed Indians who carry one off into captivity for ten years, but the amoral woman who carries one’s beloved into the captivity of a loveless marriage, the war which carries him off again to an apparently meaningless death, or the spirit of the age which seems to deny the reality of meaning beneath contemporary social chaos.

In Ironside, Ada’s problem is finding a good way to pursue what her soul says is happiness. In Queenborough, in the second half of the novel, the problem of sustaining values through a dying age becomes more important. Ada and John observe the “happiness hunters” of Queenborough, a mass of people who seem to think of happiness as something one buys or suddenly receives, rather than as the process of creating and sustaining meaningful human relationships, relationships governed by movement toward some self-transcending goal. While the masses speed along the streets in powerful machines, chasing happiness, the Fincastles make themselves happy day by day out of these basic materials of fidelity and spiritual aspiration. While the masses repeat “I,” and never see God, the Fincastles repeat “I/Thou” and, thereby, make God, insofar as “He” is known.