Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Elizabeth Spencer is a southern author, born in Mississippi, who has lived much of her life in Italy and Canada. The influences of all these places and their interaction are evident in her fiction. Like many southern writers, she has an acute sense of place, and she is fascinated by the southern character, whose nuances she keenly perceives. Like Henry James, she became intrigued during her Italian sojourn with the interrelationship between Americans and Europe, an interest “The Cousins” clearly reflects. The visit abroad is a maturation process for these young people, who are well educated and well read but essentially provincial until their encounter with the ancient, artistic, religious, and social wonders of the Old World.

Clearly one of the predominant themes of the story is the inability of human beings to understand one another in any but the most limited sense, even though they have been reared together in the same background, with the same antecedents and influences. This lack of communication leaves them puzzled by the full implications of their actions; however, the sensitive characters in “The Cousins” have clearly grown emotionally and spiritually as a result of their experiences. Thus the European journey and its aftermath have not been lost on them, and their lives are more fulfilled from having known one another and having gone together through the events that occurred in their early maturity.