Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

One of the novel’s main themes is the pervasiveness of poverty and difficulty of escaping from it. Despite their very different backgrounds, both Bob DuBois and Vanise Dorsinville seem stuck in a cycle of deprivation and misfortune. Although Russell Banks shows more clearly that Bob makes a number of bad...

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One of the novel’s main themes is the pervasiveness of poverty and difficulty of escaping from it. Despite their very different backgrounds, both Bob DuBois and Vanise Dorsinville seem stuck in a cycle of deprivation and misfortune. Although Russell Banks shows more clearly that Bob makes a number of bad choices, he also starts from a relatively disadvantaged position in terms of US society. Banks also explores the themes of race, nationality, and immigration. Vanise manages to survive but loses most of her family in part through Bob’s actions—or rather inaction. But racist attitudes have contributed to the precarious position in which they are placed and, at least indirectly, lead to the Haitians’ drowning. The author also explores the theme of individualism through giving the two main characters very distinct personalities. Bob, in particular, seems a prisoner of his nature. Banks makes the reader wonder about human nature: could anything have made Bob change for the better? Or were his bad choices, and thus his death, inevitable?

The author shows Bob living an impoverished life in both the practical and spiritual sense: his work situation is always precarious, and he has a lot of debt, but he also disrespects his wife by having affairs and endangers his family’s welfare by his reckless behavior. After moving to Florida, the theme of race expands in comparison his very white New England town, and his next affair is with an African-American woman. It almost seems that he thinks his personal behavior transcends the everyday reality of racism. Bob’s personality drives the plot in several ways, leading the reader to consider the question of individual choices and responsibility. Perhaps Bob is not a bad person, because he does not think of himself that way, but he doubtless makes bad choices.

Vanise’s character seems less rounded and more stereotypical. While she is looking for a better life for herself and her baby, along with her nephew, she is left with few options when they are living on the island. Although countless women do find themselves with almost no choice but prostitution, Banks’s decision to put this character into that situation seems intended to further the plot rather than to make her as much of an individual as Bob is.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235

Continental Drift, with its sweeping narrative movement, explores the themes of good and evil, success and failure, and racism and poverty, among others, in contemporary American society. In the depiction of the fragmenting lives of Bob DuBois and Vanise Dorsinville, Banks comments upon the moral ambiguities afflicting ordinary lives, of people whose uncertain “drifting” toward the future reflects the cyclical, undetectable, and often unpredictable shifts or changes in the larger natural world surrounding them. This naturalistic motif is presented as a motivating factor for the migration of the book’s two protagonists: for Bob, to escape the confines of his meager life in small-town New Hampshire; for Vanise, to flee natural disaster and the poverty endemic to rural Haiti.

A further theme that the novel explores is the myth of the American Dream. Both Bob and Vanise, though coming from very different social and cultural backgrounds, see Florida as the promised land, a place where they can make a new start for themselves and their families and achieve the kind of economic stability their homes cannot offer them. What they find in south Florida, again in quite contrasting ways, more closely approximates an American Nightmare full of selfishness, corruption, and greed. Their tragedy, Banks implies, derives from believing in that dream in the first place, since it is the ugly reality of contemporary American life that they discover and by which they are ultimately defeated.

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