Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1238

While avid Conroy fans will recognize many of the thematic concerns of previous novels in Beach Music, including sibling relationships, parent and child relationships, family abuse, mental illness, class differences, politics, religion and faith, new themes add focus to this novel. War occupies much of the reader's attention through the...

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While avid Conroy fans will recognize many of the thematic concerns of previous novels in Beach Music, including sibling relationships, parent and child relationships, family abuse, mental illness, class differences, politics, religion and faith, new themes add focus to this novel. War occupies much of the reader's attention through the discussion by the Jewish characters of the terrors of the Holocaust and through an overview of the effects of the Vietnam war on those who remained at home. No scenes or reminiscences from the fighting in Vietnam itself appear, but much attention focuses on the war protestors and on the older generation who greatly disapproved of such actions. Conroy attempts to balance the arguments for and against involvement in the war as characters disagree over the definition of "patriotism." The sub theme of peace takes on a double meaning as Jack's high school friends try to find a way to accept one another's actions by applying a new perspective thirty years following the war-protest events which severed some of their friendships.

The related themes of faith and religion, frequently present in Southern writing, and always present in Conroy's novels, find revival through Conroy's consistent focus on the mysteries of Catholicism and also through an emphasis on the Jewish religion. Not only does Conroy's main figure struggle with his own faith, he must direct the religious training of his daughter whose mother was Jewish. Through shockingly vivid memories of the Holocaust, the Jewish characters cause the freedom of religion to assume new importance. The use of two priests as main figures and the dual consideration of Mary as simultaneously being the mother of Christ and a Jew adds a thoughtful dimension to the conflict the characters and readers might face. One Jewish character prays to a statue of Mary, thinking of her as a young Jewish girl.

Concerns for the environment are highlighted through Lucy McCall's passion for the preservation of the local loggerhead turtles. Her clashes with the wildlife authorities who label her intrusive methods illegal highlight the fact that man's laws do not always provide the guidance they should. Lucy is a revolutionary, evading her country's laws in order to preserve the higher good, just as Shyla, Jack's dead wife, revolted against what she saw as her country's mistaken involvement in an immoral war. The conservation concerns allow the alliance of grandmother and granddaughter as Leah inherits her grandmother's fiery compassion and commitment to saving the turtles.

While Conroy has featured mental illness in his past novels, especially in Prince of Tides, the character of John Hardin allows him to further experiment with the effects of the human mind on human actions. John Hardin's schizophrenia represents the loss of order, but also the achievement of a type of freedom through chaos. It is, however, a dangerous freedom, allowing Conroy again to emphasize the importance of the legal system, no matter how imperfect it may be. When John Hardin terrorizes his family and neighbors, the law must step in to help re-institutionalize him. But Conroy is not totally confident regarding the treatment of the mentally ill. His narrator stresses the fact that commitment to a mental institution is the easiest thing in the world to achieve in the South. Jack's college friend, Jordan, is effortlessly committed by his parents following his involvement in war protests, although he is not mentally ill. Suicide receives a glance through Shyla's self destruction, and various theories are proposed as to why one takes one's life. There's also a discussion between the members of Jack's circle in high school as to how they would commit suicide; Jordan's plan turns out to be quite prophetic. Any serious theories regarding the causes of suicide remain bound up in family relationships, and this theme remains one not quite as deeply explored as some of Conroy's other themes.

Through the interactions of Jack and his four brothers, the theme of sibling relationships emerges. Although all matured in the same stifling environment, that of the home of an alcoholic, they react to life in different ways, developing varied interests and personalities. Again and again, Conroy shows how the fabric of brotherhood helps protect each individual from the tears in the fabric of family. Jack McCall says of his brothers, "We . . . had grown to manhood in a household of secret terrors that had marked each of us in different ways . . . We used laughter as both a weapon and a vaccine."

Judge McCall's alcoholism allows Conroy an additional emphasis upon order versus chaos. His ironic contrast of the Judge's disorderly life, made so through alcohol, with his practice of the law, meant to bring order, helps support his questioning of the value of law and order. A flashback to the Judge's finest hour as he supported integration helps illustrate how even those who love law the most can abandon its precepts under the pressures of emotional and mental challenge.

While local politics remain an issue through discussions of Vietnam and of Capers Middleton's bid for the office of governor, a concern for international politics are emphasized through discussions of the horrors of the Holocaust and also through an attack by terrorists at an Italian airport. Conroy seems to want to remind readers that just because the United States is not involved in an official war, wars around the world continue to rage.

The theme of maturation appears on three different levels as three generations are traced from youth to maturity. Jack's daughter, Leah, represents the youngest generation, attempting to find her Southern roots after having been raised in Italy. Jack and his peers represent the next oldest generation. Each continues to strive toward the discovery of their destinies, at last finding they are closely intertwined with the destinies of the generation that preceded theirs and which they tried so hard to reject. The values of this older generation, while seemingly so different from those of their children, end up finding a common ground with those of youth. Most of the faults the younger generation finds with the older has to do with their feeling manipulated toward accepting their parents' ideals and dreams. This results in a conflict often based upon the theme of class differentiation, as individuals find themselves excluded from their friends' lives due to parental perception of the importance of social distinctions. Because Jack does not come from a wealthy and "rooted" Southern family, his early romance with Ledare is discouraged by her parents. By the close of the novel, differences are forgiven, and grace finally surfaces as the important factor in one's maturation.

Perhaps the strongest theme is that of storytelling. The stories Conroy weaves remain central to his novel, although the major plot of discord and reunion between Jack and his friends and family could have been told without many of the "side stories" Conroy supplies. Such tales feature his knowledge of the sea and all of its creatures, as well as a revelation of the cruelty peculiar to the South. Much of his story magic focuses upon animals, symbolizing an innocence unshared by humans. Never has Conroy allowed himself to use the aspects of the age-old romantic quest as he does in Beach Music. Ancient narrative elements such as a journey across water, magic and mysticism, the need for a guide, the search for identity, the claiming of the father's heritage, loss, the descent into darkness, renewal through new life, and recovery of reward abound.

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