Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The thematic significance of De Vries’s novel may best be expressed in a credo that Don Wanderhope drafts for his college newspaper in response to their request. In it, he writes,I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. Philosophy can give us nothing permanent to believe either; it is too rich in answers, each canceling out the rest. The quest for Meaning is foredoomed. Human life “means” nothing. What does a Debussy Arabesque “mean,” or a rainbow, or a rose? A man delights in all of these, knowing himself to be no more—a wisp of music and a haze of dreams dissolving against the sun. Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third.

This may seem like too easy a denial of God, and too evasive a response to the problem of gratuitous pain and suffering, but what Don is actually denying is the Calvinistic concept of a Deity who is directly responsible for human suffering, who metes out punishment to those who deserve it. Wanderhope rejects this God of his childhood and accepts instead a humanistic ethic that values love and intimacy and cherishes these moments in his relationship with his daughter. Life becomes meaningful through shared intimacy with others, not through any transcendent beliefs. After Carol’s death, Don finds through his recollections of their shared life together the courage to continue, even if, as he remarks, “time heals nothing.”