What are the 3 themes of the story "Double Indemnity"?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Three themes of Double Indemnity by James M. Cain are the nature of man, guilt, and greed.

The theme of greed is inherent in the characters of the book. Walter Huff wants to be with Phyllis Nordlinger and doesn't care that she's married. Indeed, he's willing to look past her negative intentions for her husband as long as he gets a piece of the insurance money. He already works for an insurance company, which likely contributes to his desire to get money from them specifically. 

Greed is also evident at the end of the novel. Rather than bring Phyllis and Huff's crimes to light, the insurance company chooses to send them out of the country. It's purely done to save their public image because the negative publicity could hurt their profits.

Cain focuses on the nature of man when Huff decides to murder his lover's husband -- without even knowing the man. He's willing to overlook all the red flags that Phyllis throws up because he's attracted to her. Huff thinks, "Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man's nuts," and then "All of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair," when she asks whether he handles accident insurance.

The nature of man for Cain is not a flattering one. Rather it's wrapped up in greed and lust -- those twin desires that people in the novel are willing to kill for. Even Huff's devotion to Phyllis is flimsy and easily set aside when he falls for her virtuous stepdaughter Lola. All of his actions are motivated by selfish desire and greed.

Finally, Cain shines a spotlight on guilt in the aftermath of the murder. Huff feels eaten up by it -- aware that he killed a man he had no problems with, a man who'd never threatened him. He is made physically ill by what he's done.

When he falls in love with Lola, that guilt leads him to confess his crimes to the insurance investigator so that Lola won't be prosecuted for Phyllis's actions. Guilt and the bleak future ahead of them also leads to the suicide pact between Huff and Phyllis at the end of the book.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another theme of Double Indemnity is the old familiar one that there is no such thing as a perfect crime. Huff has a big advantage as a criminal because he actually knows the insurance busiiness. It was characteristic of James M. Cain that he understood his subject matter thoroughly before he wrote about it. Huff thinks he has the perfect scheme for collecting on Phyllis's husband's life insurance policy, but he fails to give sufficient consideration to Keyes, the claims manager, who can sense that there is something fishy about the supposedly accidental death. Also, Huff didn't understand the character of the woman he was conspiriing with. Another familiar theme in the novel is that crime does not pay. Yet another is: Murder will out. The joint conspiracy to murder a woman's husband was also used in Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, although the motive was different.

kapokkid eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Three themes are the idea of senseless (or at least relatively) killing, sexuality and greed.  These are shown in a number of ways:

Huff shows this first one as he considers the idea of killing Phyllis' husband and thinking only of how to make it work without getting caught rather than actually considering the moral problems of killing another human being.

He also demonstrates the idea that sexual attraction and greed drive this willingness to kill without serious consideration as he tries to follow through on Phyllis' idea that they could live a nice life together if her husband were dead.

Read the study guide:
Double Indemnity

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