Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Basement Room” is the dramatization of a traumatizing event that inhibits the individual from achieving human contact in the future. The situation presented deals with the souring of innocence and the consequent fear of life that it occasions. The theme is best expressed in the narrator’s statement: “Life fell on him [Philip] with savagery and you couldn’t blame him if he never faced it again in sixty years.” Philip Lane is portrayed as an imaginative and sensitive boy who has not yet learned to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. The story’s central meaning has to do with his sudden awareness that life is a series of compromises, and that adulthood forces one into commitments and allegiances that one does not always understand. Philip learns that good and evil are not as clear-cut as his feelings for Baines, whom he loves, and Mrs. Baines, whom he fears. When he unwittingly betrays Baines, he does not understand that choice has been thrust on him too soon; rather than commit himself in trust and love to another human being in the future, he chooses to remain isolated from human life. The story focuses on the theme of betrayal, agonizingly complicated to the boy Philip, provocative to the reader.