Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

While the novel is primarily about writing stories, it develops a broader theme through this sustained metaphor. To a degree, the theme that the writers attempt to get across in their imaginary books—one actually called A Widow for One Year—turns into the major theme of the real A Widow for One Year: love in its many forms.

The love of children is illustrated through Marion and Ted’s grief over their lost sons and the fear of losing their remaining child. This relationship is further developed through the way Ruth guards and values her own child. Casual sexual relations and genuine feeling between two people are set in opposition throughout the novel. Hannah’s reckless sexual behavior and Ted’s excessive philandering contrast dramatically with Ruth’s and Eddie’s quests for fulfillment. The passages in Amsterdam’s brothels chronicle a depraved side of sexual encounters, where love no longer matters but is replaced by money and, in some instances, brutality. Friendship emerges as another form of love, which Irving explores and extends in the novel. Although he has been accused of sentimentality in his fiction, the way he handles human relationships does not actually border on the sentimental—unless a desire to attain love in its varied guises does indeed constitute an excess of sentiment. When A Widow for One Year ends, the major characters have found the elusive security and peace for which they have been searching and which love assures. Even sex-hungry Hannah begins to re-examine her views.

That Irving mixes comedy and tragedy sometimes makes it difficult to take him seriously. On one hand, he writes remarkable scenes that border on burlesque, such as the literary reading where a befuddled Eddy ineptly introduces Ruth and the stagehand ogles her breasts while she reads from her feminist novel. He satirizes American society in exquisite tones—such as the snobbery inherent in private schools or the pretentiousness in an area such as the Hamptons on Long Island. In contrast, though, Irving’s retelling of the accident that claimed the two boys’ lives is a haunting episode, as is the murder of the prostitute in Amsterdam. Yet this melding of comedy and tragedy represents life faultlessly.