The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Themes
The main themes of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are escape and the definition of family.
- Escape: The two artists behind The Escapist embody different meanings of escape. Joe first escapes cultural and religious persecution and later escapes his own guilt for failing to save his family. Sammy tries to escape his identity as a gay man but later finds relief in acceptance.
- Family: The characters in the novel portray the malleability of the concept of family, seeking belonging by building new and often unconventional families.
The theme of escape is central to the novel. Chabon explores the various meanings of escape, in the literal and figurative dimensions of the concept. Even before the threat of war comes to Prague, Joe has been working with his tutor, Kornblum, to learn the tricks of the magic trade, learning to pick locks and escape submerged coffins. Joe’s Jewish identity is a key part of who he is, and there is a suggestion that Joe’s desire to learn how to escape is connected to his Jewish background. Joe and Kornblum first succeed in freeing the town’s historic Golem from its captivity, securing its escape from the Germans. And Joe, too, escapes to Vilna in its box. The symbolism is strong here: Joe, as a Jew, is inextricably connected with the Golem, which represents a protective spirit for the Jewis community of Prague. Joe physically escapes, but he also brings that Jewish spirit with him. Whatever happens to the Jews in Europe, their folklore, stories and strength have traveled to America with Joe.
The Escapist is a continuation of this idea. The most successful comic book hero created by the Kavalier & Clay partnership, the Escapist represents, as Joe says, a sort of “American Golem.” He exists as a savior for those who are trapped: both the comic book characters who need to be physically rescued from Nazi-coded villains and the readers of the comic books who may feel trapped in their day-to-day lives and look to comics as a form of escape. Joe uses the Escapist as an outlet for his sense of powerlessness about his family, whose escape from Europe he tries, and fails, to secure. He is constantly able to spring himself out of unlikely situations, such as when he becomes one of only two survivors of his Navy base after a carbon monoxide leak, but freeing others often eludes him, to his shame. The Escapist, in the form of Tom Mayflower, is a very Americanized version of the concept of the Golem. In a sense, Tom mirrors Joe as well: Tom’s strong-jawed, clean-cut image reflects the ways in which Josef, now Joe, seeks to conceal his past and present himself as more in keeping with his American surroundings. When, at the end of the story, Joe creates a Golem character more true to his Jewish roots, we see that he has escaped in yet another way. He has escaped his need to sublimate his Jewish identity in goyische American culture.
Sammy, too, has several escapes throughout the novel, often related to his own sublimated identity as a gay man. After a house party is raided by the police, Sammy is able to escape from imprisonment by providing sexual favors for the FBI agent. After this, he believes he has found another means of escape from being persecuted as a gay man when he marries Rosa. However, it becomes clear over the years that he has not escaped but simply built another prison for himself. As a result, when he is publicly outed during a televised trial, he feels not horror but relief. Finally, he is able to escape the constraints of his false life and go to LA, where he can try to live as himself.
The Definition of Family
Families—and the question of how families are defined—are central to the novel. The only family in the story which adheres to a traditional model—a mother, a father, and two children—is the Kavalier family before the war. Much of Joe’s struggle over the course of the story is driven by a desire to reclaim this familial...
(This entire section contains 981 words.)
bond. When his family dies at the hands of the Nazis, he becomes increasingly fixated on trying to recapture what he has lost. When he is finally able to secure passage for his brother, Thomas, on a ship to America, he begins creating a sort of nest for him, an apartment in which he will “raise” him. Rosa tells him gently that he will need to be a father to Thomas, rather than a brother, something which Joe seems glad to take on. A found family is promised in the form of Joe, Rosa and Thomas: Rosa, painting a mural on the wall for Thomas, is “practicing” to be a mother.
This promise of family, however, eludes Joe at the last moment when the ship in which Thomas is traveling is destroyed by a U-Boat. Joe’s guilt is so enormous that he leaves to join the Navy without telling Rosa, not knowing that he has left her pregnant with his child. When Sammy marries Rosa, they create a new type of family unit. Sammy does not love Rosa romantically, but he, Joe, and Rosa have already lived together previously as a supportive and loving group of their own. Sammy and Joe, as cousins and close friends, love each other, and in many ways this bond is as powerful as the romantic love between Rosa and Joe. In the same way, the bond between Rosa and Sammy is a stable and positive force, complicated only by Sammy’s ongoing struggle to remain closeted.
At the end of the story, Rosa underlines the point that family should not be defined by anybody but the family itself. She suggests that Sammy should stay with her, Joe, and their son. On a personal level, she wants him to stay; on a broader level, she wants to prove that their lives cannot be controlled by others. Sammy does leave, saying he needs to prove a point to himself first, but the card he leaves—labeled “Kavalier & Clay”—is an indication that the door remains open. He may be in LA, but he will continue to work with Joe and to love Joe, Rosa, and Tommy. Despite the irregularity of their situation, they have formed a family.