Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

While the novel treats the nature of justice, the meaning of truth, and the limitations of humanity, it is the centrality of suffering that is the major preoccupation, the superstructure that provides a single dominant configuration for these themes. Agathon’s life is defined by the suffering that he has caused for Tuka, the suffering that he could not prevent Thalia from experiencing, the suffering imposed on the community by the insensitive laws handed down by Lykourgos, and the heroic response of Dorkis to senseless execution. Unable to heal wounds, he assumes the ludicrous role of the sufferer who refuses to free himself. The prison rats he courts and accepts as his rightful community return his favors with the insidious germ of ultimate suffering. The plague in the final analysis becomes simply a symbol of the wreckage that life has already produced.

Suffering is identified in the novel as evil, as a result of the finite quality of humans, and as the inescapable reality of life. People inflict suffering on themselves and on those they both love and hate. They cannot avoid such complicity. When they try to act in love, they invariably cause the one loved to suffer, yet withdrawal only compounds the problem.

The novel suggests that suffering may be the only reliable truth people can trust. It is certainly authentic in its impact on people and in its motivation for response. It can be neither denied nor escaped. While each character must face his or her own suffering, it is Agathon’s suffering that is most clearly chronicled in the autobiographical development of the novel. The objective correlative for his suffering is the ever-present prison company of the rats. All of Agathon’s efforts to domesticate them in fantasy and fact fail to stay their progress. They eat away at his numbed consciousness until the rage of the fever and weakness they bring finds response.

Peeker, on the other hand, has the youthful physical resources to distance himself from the rats, to knock them away when they begin to nibble. Yet Peeker must watch their progress with his mentor. Watching and waiting brings its own suffering for him and, more important, brings him the lessons of suffering: tolerance, patience, understanding, and wisdom.