Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Being stricken in the midst of life with cancer is a theme in much of David Leavitt’s fiction. At an age when most people have not yet even grasped the idea of mortality, Leavitt was probing the minds and hearts of cancer patients with uncanny authority. He is most concerned with the way cancer both unites and separates people. He uses cancer as a metaphor for the inescapable loneliness of life. Although disease can help one to sympathize with others similarly afflicted, Leavitt presents it as a reminder that everyone must pass alone through the valley of the shadow of death. His characters take no comfort in knowing that others may be suffering, for it means nothing to them. Only their own suffering is real, and thus their cancer becomes the ultimate reality. Although it heightens the awareness of life around them, it also intensifies their loneliness.

Leavitt does not portray this loneliness as a cause for sadness or self-pity. People such as Anna Harrington do not envy the healthy or resent the well, nor do they view life at such a distance that it becomes meaningless and absurd. Although their disease focuses their attention on themselves, it does not make them selfish or spiteful, but neither does it make them philosophical. In this respect, Leavitt’s is a fresh view and a fresh voice. Unlike the characters of Anton Chekhov or Thomas Mann, who are either in love with their disease or angry with God for allowing it, Leavitt’s characters have a...

(The entire section is 452 words.)