Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cozzens often places at the center of his novels a mature professional man whose success demands that he accept responsibility for his community. These men have considerable authority and power over others, and the exercise of this power and their duty to wield it justly prompt most of the action. His characters are molded by their professions, and the world is presented through their eyes. Cozzens is a social realist in that he presents things as they are and does not prescribe simple resolutions for his conflicts. Moral dilemmas are explored in all their complexity: There are choices where no alternative is ideal. Indeed, Cozzens often suggests that the power to choose is an illusion, that men are the victims of fate. This Calvinist sense of predestination places Cozzens squarely in the tradition of such “dark” American novelists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner.

Many conflicts develop out of the conflicts between love and reason. Cozzens manifests a great respect for the traditions and established social order of the middle classes, whose virtues of rationality, self-discipline, and stability are contrasted with the irrational, undisciplined, impassioned actions of other members of the community, usually of a lower social class. Man is seen as a product of his past and as consciously influenced by it: Events from the past continually force themselves into present moments. The implication is that although time passes, man never really changes, and there is no natural progression toward perfectibility.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

This novel centers on the theme of reason versus passion. Arthur Winner, a lawyer modeling himself after his lawyer father, is the man of reason who, within the forty-nine hours covered by the novel, must confront and act upon situations arising out of passion. Arthur discovers that Noah Tuttle, now at eighty the senior partner in the law firm, had, during the Depression, embezzled money from trust accounts to prevent the failure of the Brocton Rapid Transit Company and the subsequent ruin of its many local investors. Over the years, Noah has made clever investments by means of which he has slowly covered almost all the shortages. Arthur must decide whether to turn Noah in — the correct and reasonable act — or to allow him to continue to make his investments, a decision which would make Arthur a legal accomplice, obliging him to continue the scheme in the event of Noah's death. Arthur struggles with his respect for Noah and his knowledge that Noah's act was an unselfish one, even a heroic one, for Noah risked his own career and his unspotted reputation. This situation allows for a full treatment of the conflict between reason and passion and for Cozzens to explore, once more, the notion that no one code of conduct is either adequate or desirable.

This theme thus leads to the secondary theme of the novel, the fact that circumstances and chance occurrences severely limit the actions people can take in any crisis. Every situation calls for action, yet...

(The entire section is 388 words.)