Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142

Fourteen-year-old Marina Marlow and sixteen-year-old Jed Hoskins are strangers to each other when the novel begins, but their relationship soon becomes the novel's focal point. Integral to it are overlapping themes that reflect upon the overall complexity of life. These include family dynamics and religious faith as well as alienation...

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Fourteen-year-old Marina Marlow and sixteen-year-old Jed Hoskins are strangers to each other when the novel begins, but their relationship soon becomes the novel's focal point. Integral to it are overlapping themes that reflect upon the overall complexity of life. These include family dynamics and religious faith as well as alienation and maturation. Specific family issues involve spousal infidelity, separation, and child abuse. The Believer religion raises specific questions of fanaticism, charismatic leadership, and the nature of faith and its relationship to science.

Marina and Jed bond because of stressful circumstances. Marina's particular situation interrelates thematic aspects of family and religion. Marina's mother Myrna, a Believer, leaves her husband behind with his girlfriend and takes their six children to the encampment. While Marina tries passionately to accept her mother's faith in an imminent Armageddon, she vacillates and thinks in terms of "maybe." She is especially troubled because she turns fourteen on July 27, the forecast day of Armageddon.

Marina is intensely thoughtful and inclined to pray and worry about her absent father, her mother, and why Believers "should be saved and not anyone else." While Marina often ponders the nature of God and morals, she is guided by the remembered sayings of her former teacher, Mrs. Lathery, and even more by the poems of Emily Dickinson. Marina seeks Jed's company to discuss Armageddon and "be sure of things again." Jed supplies the rational perspective Marina sorely needs, while she provides him with someone intelligent to talk.

Unlike Marina, Jed never wavers in his spiritual stand against these "religious maniacs." Jed, alienated from the group, acknowledges religion merely to ask: "Please, God—get me out of this nuthouse!" Despite the sneer on his face and sarcastic approach, Jed is bright, self-searching, and deeply caring. While he considers prayer a fruitless endeavor, he is keenly, almost religiously inspired by the natural universe. Whenever he enjoys his assigned camp work, it is because he likes the outdoors and connecting with people.

The situation of Jed, like that of Marina, addresses issues of spousal infidelity and abandonment as well as responsibility and maturation. When the novel begins, Jed has already learned to take charge. He goes to the encampment to watch over his father, who disintegrated emotionally when Jed's mother ran off with another man. Although his mother abandoned him as well as his father, until the novel's end Jed longs deeply for her. Jed makes lists when he mentally sorts through a problem, a tactic his mother used which reminds him of her.

The actual process of maturation is seen primarily in Marina, who confronts child neglect and abuse in her own family. The camp behavior of Myrna Marlow is far from the motherly ideal, which forces Marina to take increasing responsibility for her five younger brothers. Marina becomes a surrogate mother, especially to three-year-old Leo. In the end, as in the case of Jed, Marina appears as the responsible adult in the family. She also has her relationship with Jed partly because her mother, who declares him a "devil-boy," is seldom present.

Myrna Marlow and Jed's father, Mr. Hoskins, who is not prominent in the narrative, are significant to the religious theme. Their ties to Reverend Beelson, the novel's defining religious character, relate specifically to issues of fanaticism and charismatic leadership. Myrna Marlow follows the Reverend with her eyes, calls him "beautiful," and talks to him as though he is God. Jed notes that the eyes of his father, once set on "perma-sad," are bright and happy because of the large, charismatic Reverend with his "deep, moving cello of a voice."

Jed pronounces the Reverend's sermons rather un-Christian, since they portray non- Believers as "people with greasy souls" who "will crackle when they burn." Still Reverend Beelson, though a "nutcase" according to Jed, evokes compassion when violence looms against outside forces. The Reverend is caught in a trap of his own making. He feels responsible for those who trusted his beliefs. Jed sympathizes with the fear and loneliness he sees in the Reverend's eyes, while Marina realizes that Armageddon is made by man, not God.

Another theme linked to Reverend Beelson and his religion is the nature of family. On Mount Weeupcut, worldly kinships are dissolved so that Believers can be "Brethren," "Sistern," a "Family" of Angels chosen to start the world anew. On this basis Myrna Marlow abandons her children to the group. A theme of science and religion arises from this approach. Little Leo, Marina's special concern, becomes ill from neglect and lack of sanitation. Just as Reverend Beelson forbids the conveniences of laptop computers and television sets, he resists the modern medicine that Leo needs. The case of Leo raises serious questions about responsibility and child endangerment when a parent's beliefs reject modern medical care available to ill youngsters.

The theme of science and faith is also developed in the character of Grahame, Marina's ten-year-old, wisecracking brother. Grahame is "naturally curious" and oppressed by the rule against television because he cannot watch the science program Nova. His endless recitation of scientific facts initially annoys Marina. As the day of Armageddon nears, Grahame undergoes a change that affects Marina as well. He begins to read the Bible and recite from it. Marina realizes that a reliance upon scientific facts and numbers is the way her brother makes himself feel safe, and she learns to respect the tactic.

Besides these characters, the novel includes a cast of lesser figures who contribute to various aspects of its themes. Marina's suffering fellow Cherub Jillian is thematically interesting because she too undergoes a process of self-realization and maturation. Jillian also wonders what to believe, and she questions Marina in her habitual "bizarre little half sentences." Later, in time of crisis, Jillian speaks clearly and displays like Jed and Marina the independence and courage required of teenagers when family and society fail them.

Mr. Hoskins, like Mr. Marlow, is a loving, flawed father. He weeps for the fiery fate of his daughter Alice, a psychology major left behind at college, while he subjects his son Jed to unwitting participation in acts that ensure a lasting sorrow of remembrance. Other Believer parents include David and Melinda, whose baby Agnes especially exemplifies the helplessness of children. A Believer related to the issue is Mrs. Parker, who pities Leo and disapproves of the way Myrna Marlow treats her children.

Thematic issues of family separation and the value of science are addressed in "tattered" Charlie, number 144 to arrive and Reverend Beelson's own long-lost, grownup son. As an experienced nurse who cares for Leo, Charlie has a hospice background and complicates the question of health care by pronouncing modern medicine "only a so-so miracle at best." Like others in the group, Charlie is a likable and sympathetic character. Ultimately, the teenagers mature in understanding that life is complex and there are no easy answers.

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