The novel demonstrates that both a sense of individual worth and a selfless commitment to others are essential for a meaningful life. The balance is difficult to achieve, and conditions over which one has no control can make its attainment more difficult. Simon, for example, because of his bizarre infancy with heroin addicts, has never been certain that he is a worthy individual. It is not surprising that he cannot defend himself emotionally against Joe, whose punishments, Simon assumes, must have been merited. Nor is Joe less insecure. Although, unlike Simon, he has a family, he cannot forget his mother’s desertion and his father’s subsequent desertion through death. Wishing to be a priest, a teacher, and a husband, he has succeeded in nothing. Kerewin, who begins confident of her worth but troubled by her difficulty in painting, has rejected all community.
In the traditional religious pattern, all these characters must suffer and be purged before they can emerge cleansed. For Simon, there is an almost instinctive attack on Joe, followed by a descent to near-death and a lengthy rejection of Joe; then, healed in body and spirit, Simon forgives Joe and returns to him. For Kerewin, there must be the destruction of her tower of isolation and a solitary period of healing—literally, from cancer, but symbolically, from self. For Joe, there must be public admission of his brutality, rejection by Simon, imprisonment, and a charge from the mysterious keeper of a sacred Maori boat, who leaves his trust to Joe, thus giving Joe the mission for which he had always yearned.