Themes and Meanings

The primary theme of “Color of Darkness” is the central theme of James Purdy’s work: the pain that comes to human beings through their failure to bridge the gaps between individuals, a failure deriving from man’s tendency to transform his existential experience into abstractions. The information that Baxter is lonely leads to the father’s generalization that commitment to work precludes any commitment to people. All the generalizing discussion between the father and Mrs. Zilke results in this abstracting of experience. The father’s concern about what Baxter knows becomes the abstraction that children know everything. Mrs. Zilke’s comment about the bouquet of the brandy leads to his assertion that she knows everything. This tendency to generalize creates a barrier between the self and the immediate. Baxter complains that his father is always thinking about something other than the immediate or looking as if he “didn’t know anything.” The inability to remember the color of people’s eyes reveals his inability to know the particular or the specific.

This failure to know specifics translates into failure to commit himself to people or to empathize with anyone, even his son. He knows intellectually that Baxter is lonely, he even feels guilty about not fulfilling Baxter’s need for a closer emotional relationship with a father, but all he is able to do in response is to buy him a dog.

Baxter reacts to the pain that comes from his father’s abstractedness in two ways: He inflicts pain on his father by kicking him and he retreats into abstraction himself. The kick is Baxter’s last attempt to make his presence real to his father. Baxter has learned that to be aware is to be aware of pain; the father, writhing in pain on the floor, is at last sharing Baxter’s world. In refusing the puppy, Baxter generalizes that he does not want anything. His father’s use of the word “son” makes Baxter feel nauseous; the obscenity he calls his father reduces the father to an abstraction, just as the father’s use of “son” has made Baxter feel that he is merely an abstraction.