Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

What is most striking about At Weddings and Wakes is its extraordinary tonal shadings: Every scene is a mixture of past and present, resonant of a future not yet experienced. In every present is a reverberation of other times and places; in every echo of joy or grief are re-echoes of past and future sounds and colorations of exaltation and wretchedness. Momma’s joy in the birth of her own child, a beautiful boy, parallels her pleasure in hearing the sound of the baby Veronica in the belly of her sister—who would soon die at childbirth, leading to a despair similar to the one Momma experienced when she disowned her son John, grown to young manhood as an unredeemed and unrepentant alcoholic.

At no point in the novel does McDermott break point of view to explain actions or consequences. Meaning derives altogether from character and scene. A reader must be able to locate the replications, the echoes and re-echoes, the juxtapositions and parallels that find the characters all dancing on graves. The overall montage turns family lore into universal myth.