Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dubin’s Lives depicts the mid-life crisis of a man who does not know who he is or what he wants. He knows that he wants to live life well and joyously, yet as he assesses his marriage and his relations with his children, he finds them empty. He pursues a love affair with Fanny, and eventually she offers him the opportunity to change his life.

Fanny not only provides him with the passionate sex but also enables him to deny, for a while, his mortality. That she is only a little older than his daughter also suggests that Dubin is dealing with an Oedipal desire for his own child. It is when she involves him in her life most completely, seeking and following his advice like a daughter, that he loves her deeply for the person she is and understands his moral responsibilities.

The novel dramatizes Dubin’s struggle to understand himself. He must come to terms with his mortality, with the lives about which he writes, and with the roles of his own life. After suffering through despair, after experiencing passion and committed love with Fanny, he is able to see more clearly.

The meaning of Dubin’s actions is achieved through the story, which Malamud always said was of supreme importance, and also through style. Malamud creates a narrator whose voice blends with Dubin’s to achieve a portrait of inner life analysis that is the theme of the work. He also uses symmetry, contrasts, metaphor, and symbol to signify the importance of events. For example, the story presents two winters and two physical dangers. Fanny is contrasted to Maud, Dubin to Lawrence; Dubin is contrasted to Roger Foster, his rival for Fanny’s love, and Dubin and Fanny are contrasted to Maud and her lover. A sighting of birds portends an important event, and a white owl leads Dubin out of danger. Fanny is associated with wild flowers, Kitty with cultivated flowers. Clues provided by the structure clarify the biographer’s struggles, his choices, and his last gift to Kitty, one that enables him to set his life in order again.