Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A main theme of the novel is contained in one of its epigraphs, which quotes D. H. Lawrence: “We cannot bear connection. That is our malady.” This deficiency is certainly borne out in the consistent lack of fulfillment in Will Brady’s personal relationships.

The statement also seems to apply in a more extended sense. Will is a successful entrepreneur. His business career embodies the realization of the American Dream, financially considered at least. Yet this achievement does not give Will a sense of identity with the society that facilitated it. In fact, he seems at the end more painfully devoid of social and cultural attachments than he was as a raw youth in Calloway, and as though to emphasize this lack, the novel’s style becomes noticeably more tentative: Words such as “somehow” and “perhaps,” and rhetorical questions, occur with increasing frequency.

The novel’s main emphasis, however, is less cultural and material than it is spiritual. Adrift in Chicago, Will is less able than ever to deny the otherness of others. Still, his very openness to otherness does not help to prevent him from succumbing to it, and he is in no position to understand it, as the following series of questions indicates:Was it any wonder that men wrote books about other things? that they traveled to the moon, so to speak, to get away from themselves? Were they all nearer to the moon . . . and such strange places than they were to their neighbors, or the woman there in the house?

It may be that “the world needed . . . a traveler who would stay right there in the bedroom, or open the door and walk slowly about his own house.”

Will’s fleeting perception of this need is, in effect, a poignant reminder of his incapacity to satisfy it. His tragedy is to embody a vision of the works of love—love’s generosity, naïveté, resilience—which he can neither control nor comprehend.