Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

It would be difficult to find a more traditional symbol of America than the New England family gathered together at Thanksgiving to celebrate physical survival and spiritual renewal. In this case, however, what is in addition intended to be a reaffirmation of the family in the face of the loss of one of its members becomes instead such an occasion for internal competition that it drives young Jason symbolically from the family table.

On one level, then, the story follows the disintegration of a family as a result of the internal conflicts of its members: competition of egos and lifestyles. On another, broader, level, the theme becomes one of evolution, competition, and survival. Particularly in the light of Ena’s rigid insistence on ritual (no matter how empty) and her subsequent disillusionment (in Hanley, her family, and civilized behavior in general), the American family can be seen as a rather cumbersome cultural institution that must try to compete successfully with the newer and self-indulgent, amorphous, anesthetic culture represented, in the story, by Southern California. Certainly this family seems already stretched to its limits, barely able to accommodate two divorces, a wife and girlfriend under the same roof, erratic electrocardiograms, Yoga, alcohol and drugs, casual sex, and the needless death of a young man.

Even if the family does manage to adapt and survive, its individual members have already begun paying a personal price for change: guilt and a sense of loss. As times and lives continue to evolve from one form into another, the family becomes like the creatures in Benton’s bedtime story, whose eyes grow “sad . . . because they were once something else.” Each of the characters, yearning for a return to simplicity and security, searches for some ritual, formality, or father-confessor, as if some symbolic act might absolve guilt and restore what was lost. Wesley’s death is only...

(The entire section is 787 words.)