Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

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...

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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 two characters allowed to speak in his own person humiliates himself in his self-revelation. Edith dies in a humiliating manner for love of her husband, and Catherine humbles herself to the point of death for love of Christ. The narrator and F. mature from boyhood lovers and seekers of the ideal to dirty old men hankering after young boys.

Cohen shows that human beings are beautiful losers. Their path is a long and a humiliating one. Only Catherine’s life is, finally, blessed—and even she, in the narrator’s account, is shown as unbeautiful in appearance and as soiled by his sordid twentieth century narrative.

It may be said, finally, that if the physical ills and foibles of most human beings are not so extreme as the narrator’s, neither are their mental and spiritual pursuits so constant. If most human beings are not so full of their own excrement or so covered with semen as Cohen’s narrator, neither are most of them continually studying their own sins or the sins of their peoples’ pasts, or the virtues of or their oneness with the sanctified.

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