Themes and Meanings
A statement of the main theme of the novel is contained in its epigraph, which is taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). In it, the emphasis falls on “a flabby, pretending weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” Undoubtedly, “folly” sums up the waste, confusion, and fear which is depicted in Dog Soldiers as representative of both America in Vietnam and the moral price paid on the home front for that involvement.
In order to make this representative portrayal persuasive, however, the novel sustains its symbols and motifs with a virtually allegoric consistency. Here, as in the matter of the main characters’ names, the author resorts to the seemingly fundamentalist imaginative strategies of a medieval morality play.
The primary symbol is heroin. It arbitrarily generates a chain of events which nobody can control. Its existence in the lives of the three main characters makes their destiny synonymous with chaos, at least for a time. The drug’s power to corrupt and destroy is directly related to its purity. Such an unnerving paradox may be seen as the novel’s despairing assessment of American activities in Vietnam.
Ironically underscoring the entrapment which heroin symbolically connotes are numerous motifs concerning freedom. Some of these are intellectual, combining features of watered-down existentialism with high-octane millenarianism, characterized by Dieter as “that flash.” More substantially, the form of freedom which Converse asserts—a combination of a naivete and desperation, leading him to attempt to do whatever he pleases—is a symptom of the times, not an escape from them.
The resulting moral confusion makes explicit the “folly” at the heart of this novel’s darkness. If, as is stated, “the mind is a monkey,” that beast is not about to relinquish its position on the backs of the characters in Dog Soldiers.