While the general contours of the main character's life fit those of Thomas Jefferson, Davis does not name this central character or locate him in a specific time or place. However, the details of his life correspond with the late eighteenth or early-to-mid nineteenth century.
A chief attribute of the story, in fact, is that it has the timeless, placeless quality of a fable or fairytale. This universalizes the story's theme, which is the gradual disintegration of this man into an increasingly pathetic and narcissistic individual. The narrative, however, leaves the answer to how to interpret the story ambiguous. This could simply be a story of a person falling into depression, increasingly losing interest in life as he increasingly perceives himself as a failure until, at the end, he has to begin to distort reality in order to survive.
Or the story could be read as an indictment of patriarchy. Patriarchy gives this man the illusion he is exceptional and that he can have it all, but this is a lie. He is apparently not a self-made man but born to wealth and power, which is not the same as internal merit. As he soon realizes, he is not all that he thought he was. He becomes disillusioned and, sadly, uses this disillusion to become increasingly self-centered and selfish. For example, he has the portraits of great men replaced with portraits of himself.
With all of this said, the story can also be read a commentary on the current plutocracy and the damaging results of too much wealth and power. As the narrator states at one point: "He now saw the country as a vast and rich resource that could be well managed to the benefit of a certain few able men like himself."