Themes

Love’s Elusiveness

Appointment in Samarra describes in great depth the private lives of several married couples: the Englishes, the Flieglers, and the Charneys. For the Englishes, tenderness, passion, laughter, sadness, and anger are emotions associated with love and experienced by Caroline and Julian at one moment or another. Whether their love is real enough to overcome the difficulties presented by Julian’s downward spiral is a key question that the book poses. Julian’s love for Caroline seems unquestionable: “After four years she was still the only woman he wanted to wake up with, to lie glowing with—yes, and even to have intercourse with.” And yet this love becomes elusive as Julian breaks her trust multiple times. The mutual expectations of Julian and Caroline are inextricably linked to the fulfillment of certain roles within their social circle. Thus, the health of their marriage is more dependent on their relationships to the people around them than on their relationship to each other. We find hints of Caroline’s love for Julian at the end of the story—when it’s too late to change his destiny. But even these hints are attached to social norms and a fear of what people will say:

They would say he was drunk, but he wasn’t drunk. Yes he was. He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was. That was what everyone else was not.

Parental love is also elusive. When Caroline and Julian go to his parents’ house for dinner after the incident with Harry, Julian’s only concern is whether they—his father in particular—have already found out. The young and the old couple exchange pleasantries, but the tension and emotional divide is palpable in Dr. English’s comments about Julian’s drinking habits and in Mrs. English’s disapproval of her son’s physical appearance. We learn through the backstories of Julian’s grandfather and of Julian’s childhood that Dr. English is afraid that his son inherited his grandfather’s weaknesses. The suicide of Julian’s grandfather looms tragically over the family, leading his grandson in the direction of a foretold tragedy. Ultimately, love in all its forms becomes elusive in a social system that is unable to satisfy people’s needs.

Destiny, Free Will, and Chance

Appointment in Samarra introduces destiny as a theme in its very title, which is taken from an old Mesopotamian tale retold by British author W. Somerset Maugham. In the story, which opens...

(The entire section is 1253 words.)

Themes

Through Julian English, O'Hara examines the failure of conventional solutions to human anguish, and poses the necessity for individual strength and courage. Family, sex, work, drink, religion, even a simple apology: None provides solace to Julian, who is the isolated twentieth-century man, left with nothing in which to believe — most importantly, himself. Julian's despair becomes a metaphor for the sense of national despair caused by the Depression, and his failure to find a solution mirrors the frustrations of a culture in which belief seems illusory. To underscore this theme, O'Hara introduces the character of Monsignor Creedon, to whom Julian, although a Protestant, turns; when Creedon confesses that he sometimes wishes he had chosen a different life's work, his lack of a true vocation makes him unable to offer spiritual solace to Julian. By rendering ineffective such traditional palliatives for human isolation, O'Hara reinforces the theme of fate: Lacking the inner resources to regain his sense of self-worth, Julian can see no point in living. Further, Julian's fate seems to him in part determined by heredity. In a culture in which people are acutely conscious of their ancestors — particularly their rise to positions of social prestige — Julian knows that his grandfather committed suicide after embezzling money from a bank, and his status-conscious father, Dr. English, consoles himself following Julian's suicide by assuming that people "would see how the...

(The entire section is 266 words.)