The central ideas developed and refined in Ethan Canin’s The Palace Thief include failure and the application of power. In the four pieces, the characters regularly confront defeat and foundering. Canin introduces the idea of failure in the first story. The narrator Abba Roth creates a nice life for himself and his family. Yet Roth fails to become a partner, invest in Eugene Peters’s company, or act on his feelings. “I have always considered myself a practical man,” says Roth. His pragmatic disposition has lead to material gain but has failed to provide other kinds of fulfillment.
In the short stories that follow, Canin refines the idea of failure. In “Batorsag and Szerelem” and “City of Broken Hearts,” Canin continues to show how families can fail one another. Clive’s family doesn’t provide him with the necessary support for his sexual identity, and Wilson Kohler mostly fails to confront the impact of his divorce.
In the final short story, “The Palace Thief,” the idea of failure continues when Hundert fails to punish a dishonest student. Here, the family fails because the student’s father, a powerful senator, dismisses Hundert’s concerns. “You will not mold him,” the senator tells Hundert. “I will mold him.”
The idea of failure links to other ideas that underlie the stories. Power, for example, is developed and refined throughout the pieces. Many of the characters have and lose power. Clive has the power to create his language, but, in the end, he doesn’t have the power to protect himself from his family. Hundert has the power to make a bigger deal out of the cheating student, but he declines to use it.