Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

The Dining Room is about the erosion of the nuclear family and the loss of American traditions and values that were once revered but now, because of time, indolence, or indifference, have become nothing more than relics of the past. The central character is really the dining room itself, an elegant room with a parquet floor, a sideboard, and an old-fashioned dark wood table with chairs at center stage, which anchors an Oriental rug. Traditionally, the dining room was, as Gurney has explained, “where the family gathered and traditions were either imposed or challenged.” Thus, the stage space becomes an apposite theatrical and visual metaphor symbolizing the traditional nexus of familial nurturing and bonding, and the thematic intent evolves forcefully and accumulatively as the characters express their disparate attitudes about these old, established American values by their treatment of either the dramatic space or the others within that space.

The play’s characters are all family members or servants of different WASP families and represent various stages in the historical decline of American values and traditions. The central conflict is the archetypal one between old and new, between those characters representing the rigid rules of the past and others bent on destroying those rules. Some characters, like the elderly father who bequeaths his son the dining room furniture because it is the best thing he has to offer him, represent those American traditionalists who hold tenaciously to the old values and regard the dining room as sacrosanct—a special room reserved for family communion through such rituals as Thanksgiving dinner. In counterpoint are characters such as Sarah or the architect, who regard the room as a torture chamber where they are forced to sit, eat, and talk with family members, a place where authoritarianism rules. Between these ideological polarities are those who, without malice, view the dining room as obsolete, as an extra room in which to fold the laundry, type a term paper, seduce a lover, or photograph its relics; they bespeak the contemporary deterioration of the American values that the dining room connotes. Like Margery’s table, the traditions that once held the family together are falling apart and in need of repair.

Through both the use of humor and the many views posited by such diverse characters, Gurney steers clear of didacticism and invokes comic detachment. Though not clearly espousing a particular viewpoint, he allows the voices of a few characters, such as Meg (who innately knows the importance of the values she left behind and desperately longs to return to them) and Ruth (to whom he gives the closing lines about the human bonding through the old traditions), to paint a rueful portrait of the American landscape, one which clearly supports his vision of the declining WASP society: “There was a closeness of family, a commitment to duty, a stoic responsibility . . . which weren’t entirely bad.” While Gurney’s droll characters spark laughter, they concomitantly kindle a mournful sense of loss for those values which formed the foundation of the American family.

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