Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Bless the Beasts and Children, Glendon Swarthout laments the passing of a time when ideals were clear and morality unambiguous; when men were men, and boys became men by imitating their fathers; when buffalo were allowed to roam the plains and were killed only when there was a need for food; and when these magnificent animals represented for the citizens of the United States a primal innocence and a noble and praiseworthy past. The six boys, as much misfits in their society as buffalo are in the last half of the twentieth century, act out of a sense of unambiguous morality and clear ideals. The boys thus become representative of what humans can still aspire to if they can see their selfish behavior for what it is, recognize their lust for power and possessions, and once again bond together in a common course for the greater good.

Cotton’s death places him into the archetypal role of tragic hero. He battles forces bigger than he is, and though he is doomed to defeat, his death is cathartic, freeing his followers from their bondage. In this action, Cotton becomes also a kind of savior of his people: “They made a splendid thunder. It pulled down temples. It smote the ears of gnats and governments. It caused an impious planet to slip a cog. It must have been heard in heaven.” In the end, the misfits triumph. Though they are frightened and all in tears, they are able to jeer at their elders: “Yah! Yah! Yah!”