Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

At the most basic level, the novel is a psychological study of the narrator and his quest for meaning in life. The makeup of his family—the mother’s fierce love and the father’s inexplicable hatred—seem designed to push the narrator into homosexuality, thus giving expression to a view commonly held at the time of the writing of the novel. Seen in its entirety, the novel is an elaborate investigation of the narrator’s fragmented identity. Since he refuses to reveal his name throughout the narrative, he deliberately frustrates a reader’s normal expectations to get to know him fully. In fact, all the more elaborately described characters the narrator encounters during his wanderings are carefully chosen to create a contrast to his murky identity. At the same time, this narrative technique allows the reader to imagine the life of a hustler. Like the narrator, the reader meets a character, is drawn into his life for a short period of time, and then as abruptly withdraws. This is underscored by the fact that the narrator attempts to create complicity between the reader and himself by addressing the reader several times directly as “you”; he seems to crave the reader’s approval (or, perhaps, absolution). In the same way that the narrator assumes the role of confessor for his clients, the reader becomes the narrator’s confessor (or psychologist). Thus the novel can be read as a sustained cry for help, and the comfort that is wished for comes through the...

(The entire section is 572 words.)