Counting the Children Themes
by Dana Gioia

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Since Gioia’s “Counting the Children” alludes so poignantly to Dante’s Inferno, one of the poem’s themes must be about loss of Paradise and the pain humans endure in hell. What is clear, here, is that the hell humans endure comes from the injuries they suffer when promises of love are broken and they are cast away. Unless someone equally loveless rescues and salvages them, they are condemned to perpetual torment. Ancestors stand beside and behind every person; ghosts haunt with the reminder that one will become them—anonymous and forgotten—and that one’s children will also become them. The sum of all accounts, existentially speaking, is constant zero. Mr. Choi’s determination to persist in the love of his daughter, to attend fearfully to her nightly as she sleeps, is futility. Passing through the gateway of hell, one abandons all hope of permanent love and despairs. Those whom one loves should, like the dolls, scream out angrily; already, it is understood that one will fail, despite good intentions. What becomes of the dolls the old woman rescued when she has died? Despite her love and care for the dolls, they will become refuse again. Tragically, even those whom love rescues face much the same fate.