Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Dark City” Aiken depicts two “dark cities,” the one in which Andrew toils and from which he attempts to escape, and the one that exists within his tortured mind. Aiken is not concerned with the literal city, which he dismisses in a phrase: “the staggering load of business detail, under which he had struggled all day in the office.” Andrew “instantly” forgets this city (or believes that he does) as he reads the newspaper as “prelude” to “his greatest pleasure in life,” which comes with the dusk at home in his garden or with his family. The suburbs, with their suggestion of rural innocence, initially seem to offer Andrew a conventional refuge from the grind of the job and the city, but Aiken suggests that in this Edenic garden paradise there is also a darker, more corrupt reality: “at the core so vile a secret.”

When he first describes Andrew’s dark city, Aiken clearly indicates that it is a bleak vision: “the dark city, the city submerged under the infinite sea, the city not inhabited by mortals.” There is no entrance to the city with “immense, sinister, and black walls,” walls that are as “old and cold as the moon.” When Andrew describes the city to Hilda, however, he embellishes that description with unsavory details about the various inhabitants of the city:Its people are maggots—maggots of perhaps the size of human children. . . . What horrible feast is it that nightly they celebrate there in silence? On what carrion do they feed? It is the universe that they devour; and they build above it, as they devour it, their dark city like a hollow tomb.

Andrew’s additions are significant because they suggest an identification between the maggots and children (and, by extension, the family) and because the real...

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