Circus in the Attic

by Robert Penn Warren

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787

Warren's most obvious theme is Bolton Lovehart's struggle against the constricting force of his mother's love, and his inability to liberate himself from his attachment to his mother and Bardsville. This theme is developed in a number of actions which demonstrate Bolton's futile rebellion.

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First, there are Lovehart's youthful attempts to break away from home and the power of Mrs. Lovehart. As a twelve year old, he forgets about belonging to the Episcopal church, wanders into a Baptist revival and is baptized in the nearby creek water. But his mother immediately rejects his action. Later as a youth of sixteen, he makes his abortive attempt to run away and join the circus, only to be betrayed by the circus manager and returned to his father. We are told that the flight to the circus, unlike the baptism, was "carefully planned, not undertaken on impulse," but as a revolt it was equally ineffectual.

Next there are Bolton's attempts as an adult to find love and to free himself from his mother's dominance. His hope of going to Sewanee University is defeated by the death of his father, an event leaving Bolton as the protector of his mother. In a scene of great pathos, we see Bolton listening to the stories about Sewanee told by Sam Jackson, his classmate at the Bardsville Academy. But an even more significant effort to escape comes in his unfulfilled romance between Bolton and Sara Darter, the daughter of Bolton's old teacher at the Bardsville Academy. After Bolton takes a job of teaching at Professor Darter's academy, it appears that he and Sara will marry.

Probably Sara has the strongest chance to liberate Bolton from Mrs. Lovehart's dominance. In order to prove to Bolton that Mrs. Lovehart's alleged heart troubles are melodramatic and self-induced collapses—as Dr. Jordan hints to Bolton—- Sara persuades Bolton to try to get a specialist for his mother. But Mrs. Lovehart reacts with accusations of betrayal and another feigned illness, and Bolton is not strong enough to defy her.

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As a result, Sara, recognizing that she cannot take Bolton away from Mrs. Lovehart's power, decides to leave Bardsville and goes away to marry someone else. However, before she leaves, Sara seduces Bolton as an act of revenge on Mrs. Lovehart, knowing that after this experience, he will never be completely happy as a bachelor.

After Sara's departure, Bolton becomes an aging gentleman mainly devoted to maintaining his mother's social position, but he continues to rebel secretly, primarily through beginning to make the circus animals in his attic. This project replaces the project his mother had wanted him to work on—the history of Carruthers County, a book Bolton talks about but never writes.

Bolton's last major rebellion against his mother's continuing influence is undertaken after his mother's death at eightyseven in 1934. This final attempt to strike out on his own results in his marriage to the widowed Mrs. Parton. Mrs. Parton, however, is a social climber from the poor end of Carruthers County and her major objective is to attain the social position into which Bolton Lovehart was born.

Nevertheless, Bolton's marriage gives him a stepson, Jasper, and something of the family life he had missed. At this point, the novella shows that Bolton, although unable to escape Bardsville, can at least become a part of its community life. Jasper's role as a soldier in World War II allows Bolton to become a public authority on the conduct of the war, and even the secretly constructed circus becomes a public artifact when it is sold at auction at a Christmas bazaar at the church, in order to raise funds for the Red Cross.

However, the new Mrs. Lovehart is almost as dominating as Bolton's mother had been, as Warren's narrative reveals, especially in her negative reaction to her son's hasty wartime marriage to the socially negligible Janie Murphy. Bolton proves to be as ineffectual as a father as he had been as a son, for he is unable to get his wife to accept Jasper's wife or to feel compassion for the young woman after she is widowed by Jasper's death in World War II. Ironically, Bolton's wife reverts to the indiscretions of her youth after Jasper's death. Her infidelity to Bolton is revealed when she is killed in a car wreck with the fiftyish Captain Cartwright, an officer stationed in a nearby army training camp.

Thus the various events of Bolton Lovehart's life reinforce the theme of his thwarted rebellion against Mrs. Lovehart and the shallow culture of Bardsville. A secondary theme of the story, the banality and emptiness of Bardsville's social life and culture is presented as a counterpoint to the story of Bolton Lovehart's failure.

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