Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313

The Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, has become an iconic representation of the atrocities that human beings can inflict on each other in times of duress. MacKinlay Kantor explores the motivations and experiences of different people involved in creating and perpetuating this indefensible situation; these include the landowner on whose plantation the camp was built and the director who tries to enforce regulations. By including their experiences along with those of the prisoners, Kantor emphasizes the theme of the contagion of brutality as the extremes of wartime bring out the worst aspects of human nature. In contrast, he offers the corresponding themes of resilience, compassion, and creativity among those forced to endure unimaginable horrors during incarceration.

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The Civil War, Kantor helps the reader understand, had a long gestation period, but the decision to enter armed conflict arose rather quickly. On both sides, the practical realities—such as the need to construct POW camps in advance of taking prisoners—were low priorities, as the civic and military leaders concentrated their organizational efforts and finances on arming and deploying the troops. A secondary theme is that the deteriorating conditions cannot be blamed on any one person, and complicity for the inhumane situation that arose must thus be shared among many.

Although about one quarter of the prisoners—some 13,000 out of 50,000—died at Andersonville, in some ways, Kantor’s story is a tribute to survival. His decision to write this story was influenced by his experiences during World War II, which included witnessing the conditions at and writing about Buchenwald, one of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany. The parallel between the two camps, which remains implicit in the book, is somewhat toned down by his portrayal of the Southern officers’ motivations and conduct; this sympathy supports the theme that even "decent" people behave obscenely, including following unethical orders, when thrown into an immoral situation.

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Characters