Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The basic meanings of Earthly Powers are demonstrated by the two acts of communion that are central to the book’s resolution. The Rukwa’s consumption of John and Laura’s actual body and blood in a sort of Manichaean mystery is an outgrowth of the church’s attempt to do good and a bring Christianity and its salvation to people who failed to understand it.

Eve and her husband partake of a different sort of communion from that of the Rukwan. They are blind followers of an evil and maniacal religious leader who was saved by their uncle. Ironically, this act of miraculous salvation is likely to assure sainthood for its dead perpetrator.

A fascinating section of the book deals with Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in Germany and in Italy in the 1930’s. Carlo’s mother, Concetta, who is dying of cancer, lives in Germany, working to help Jews escape. Through her, the young son of Jakob Strehler, a German Nobel laureate in literature, comes to live with Kenneth, an arrangement that works out badly.

At one crucial moment in the book, Concetta, who has little time left, pulls a pistol and aims it at Heinrich Himmler, intending to kill him. Kenneth, acting instinctively, pushes Himmler aside when he sees what Concetta intends, and Himmler’s guards open fire on the old woman, who dies. Kenneth, in doing what was humanly natural, saving the life of another person, has really done mankind an injustice. This event is interestingly parallel to Carlo’s saving God Manning.