Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1638

The protagonists in Drown live midway between childhood and adulthood, as do the protagonists in all classic works of young adult literature. These boys and young men vary in age from nine through about twenty. The younger protagonists are still clearly children, climbing trees and playing ball games, yet they witness and experience decidedly adult events, such as learning of their fathers' marital infidelities and engaging in basic sexual experimentation. The older protagonists face the reality of having to support themselves to survive from day to day, yet they often retreat into more childish behaviors, dreaming of unrealistic futures and methods of escaping from the responsibilities of impending adulthood. The title of the collection can be seen as a reference to the drowning of the young protagonists' innocence as they leave the comforting protection of childhood and enter the harsh reality of adulthood.

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On the surface, these main characters appear toughened and inured to emotional pain, yet they harbor deep emotional sensitivities. The protagonist in "Boyfriend" claims to be immune to Girlfriend's obvious emotional pain: "I guess I'd gotten numb to that sort of thing. I had heart leather like walruses got blubber." He wishes his heart were hardened, yet he maintains empathy even for a total stranger's pain, as he listens to Girlfriend's crying for days, following her movements as she wanders around her apartment, wishing he could talk to her. He is also suffering from his own broken heart, further destroying his attempt to be tough and unattached. Girlfriend herself wants to be emotionally impenetrable, cutting off her luxurious hair to appear tougher, but this action is merely a response to the lasting pain she feels from Boyfriend's callous rejection of her. No matter how the characters try to toughen themselves, they still feel the pain of their disappointing lives.

Most of the families represented in Drown are broken families with no fathers. Even though the fathers are absent, the familial culture Diaz presents is still mostly patriarchal. When they are on the scene, the fathers exercise almost total authority and children fear their father's violent temper, and when they are absent, having deserted their families for a variety of reasons, the fathers' influence on the families remains strong. The specters of their missing fathers hang forever in the back of the main characters' minds. Even in "Fiesta, 1980," the only story in the book in which the protagonist lives with his father, it is clear that the family is on the brink of demise. Papi spends increasing amounts of time with his mistress as his passive wife fears their impending separation. Both sons are aware of the situation, but they are powerless to stop their father from leaving.

It is the mothers in these stories who suffer the most from this patriarchal familial culture. In "Fiesta, 1980," Mami closes her eyes as her husband pulls their son to his feet by his ear, anticipating that her husband will beat the boy. She objects in no way because "being around Papi all her life had turned her into a major-league wuss. Anytime Papi raised his voice her lip would start trembling, like some specialized tuning fork." Similarly, life has beaten down the mother in "Drown" to such an extent that she barely continues to exist, living more as an automaton than a thinking, feeling human. She has almost turned into a part of the apartment in which she subsists: "She's so quiet that most of the time I'm startled to find her in the apartment. I'll enter a room and she'll stir, detaching herself from the cracking plaster walls, from the stained cabinets... . She has discovered the secret to silence: pouring cafe without a splash, walking between rooms as if gliding on a cushion of felt, crying without a sound."


(The entire section contains 1638 words.)

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