Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Charles Baxter’s story is yet another rendition of the age-old conflict between the generations. It concerns the meaning of tradition, what gets passed on to the next generation. This story suggests that tradition is never received in the pure form of its transmission. Those of the next generation will always alter or transform the tradition in some way, reworking in order to make it their own, to satisfy their own needs and desires.

From the beginning of the story until the moment the boy takes off, the old man is a grouch, suspicious of the young boy’s worthiness. He wheezes, coughs, smokes, and swigs wine even as he preaches the virtues of faith, hope, charity, and love and insists on moral and physical chastity for the initiate. Baxter provides a clue to the source of this wanton self-destructiveness when, responding to the boy’s query if he still believes in the spells, the old man insists, “I am the spells.” Despite the sop to ritual and the sacred—summarized in the boy’s drawing an invisible circle around himself, removing his shoes as though he is on holy ground, removing his sweatshirt to expose his unsullied heart—the old man knows that the only spells are those that he himself wills. Perhaps when he was young some older man taught him to believe in something outside himself, something just beyond the horizon of human knowledge. Now an older man, no longer innocent, no longer pure, he knows that the only spells are those he...

(The entire section is 556 words.)