Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel’s unusual title, echoed three times in the novel proper and once in the epilogue, abstracts the main themes: the nature of right conduct (what to do), self-identity (I’m), the impact of past on present—or present on future (going to do), and self-knowledge as well as belief (I think). The first use of this signature phrase— Chris’s recollection of his father’s response to the three serious accidents that Chris suffered one summer: “What I’m going to do, I think, is get a new kid”—conveys the other key theme: the generation gap, or relationship of parents and children.

How these themes are expressed is intimated by one of the novel’s three epigraphs, from canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno (the Italian could be translated, “and I fell as a dead body might fall”). It alerts the reader not only to the novel’s moral dimension (Chris and Ellen’s premarital carnal relations have had consequences that Dante understands and condemns in canto 5) but also to the novel’s comprehensive symbolism, a second shared feature of the novel with Dante’s work. Indeed, this symbolism is so widespread that the book borders on the classification of symbolism or allegory for its plot. A sampling of such symbols, in roughly chronological order, would begin with the recurrence of the number three (or multiples of three) in the book, also reminiscent of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The novel has thirteen chapters (perhaps signifying misfortune for the main characters), each divided into three subchapters, making thirty-nine sections, while the main flashbacks are handled in the second and third subchapters of the first three chapters. All these, plus some seventeen or...

(The entire section is 698 words.)