Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The yearnings of humankind in general and toward a higher humanity, and the merging of human beings with one another and with the spiritual, are the themes of Beautiful Losers. The dark tone of the novel and the antiheroic stature of its protagonist and his admired friend make the themes all the more poignant. Human beings who see themselves and who are seen as good men and women struggling to be better may see themselves and be seen by others as partially victorious in their struggles. Cohen’s protagonist, in particular, does not see himself as a good man. He is suffering, struggling with constipation and unfulfilled longings. Even his spiritual longings are couched in base physical terms. His is the exaggerated baseness of every man and woman, and his are the highest aspirations of every man and woman. Mired as he is in his physical pains and desires, mired as he is in his own past sins and in those of his fellow Americans (in terms of their destruction of Native Americans), and confined as he is for so many years in his basement apartment, he continues, seemingly, to atone for his sins and the sins of humankind in his study of Catherine Tekakwitha and her almost-extinct tribe and in the study of his own mortified and mortifying flesh.

Self-mortification in one or another sense is common to each of the four characters of the novel. While Catherine’s self-denial and self-mortification are thought to be excessive by her associates, each of...

(The entire section is 441 words.)