Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Superficially, it seems that Beyond the Bedroom Wall serves no greater ambition than to live up to its subtitle. Its formal preoccupations deal fundamentally with chronicling, documenting, and remembering. Its central meaning seems contained in a need to keep faith with real life, reality in this case being synonymous with family intimacy and small towns.

Yet Woiwode resists the temptation to create a mere inventory of the past. The dream with which the novel opens places the narrator in the position of seeing again and seeing afresh, and throughout the novel there are numerous reminders that the activity of seeing is as important as the thing seen.

As though to confirm the significance of sight, moments in the novel are sometimes graced by light. The night that the family arrives in Illinois and finds itself unwelcome, Martin catches sight of “the celestial geometry of the children around Alpha’s waiting face.” Yet such moments do not occur predictably and do not provide a dependable means of perceiving the world. Rather, they are part of the total reality which the human experiences of the characters embrace.

Martin confirms that the family album of the novel’s subtitle is the most fitting. He says, “My life is like a book. . . . There is one chapter, there is one story after another.” A book does seem to be the most suitable means of embodying the character of experience as described in the novel’s epigraph. The epigraph is a statement by Erik H. Erikson: “ Reality,’ of course, is man’s most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all.”

This novel’s objective is to denote the quality of the illusion, to keep faith with the warmth and familiarity within the bedroom wall, as well as with the mystery and difficulty of life beyond the bedroom wall.