Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ashley, Wilder reiterates, is a “man of faith”—endowed also with substantial funds of hope and charity. A sharply contrasting fellow townsman, Dr. Gillies, proclaims the inevitability of a continued “eighth day” development of man and the human community in the new century—but without believing it himself, for he considers it the duty of the old to deceive the young. Ashley, however, embodies hope. Although he accepts his temporary role as Tolland, he clearly expects to return someday in honor to his family; his family is imbued with the same hope. Meanwhile, he gains strength by overcoming deprivation, by a generous giving of himself and his talents to others who are also in some way deprived. Along the way he meets and benefits from other positive thinkers, including Dr. MacKenzie and Mrs. Wickersham, a founder of Chilean orphanages and hospitals. Back in Coaltown, a few souls shine forth: Porky O’Hara, a cobbler who quietly assists the young Ashleys, and Miss Doubkov, the dressmaker who supports George Lansing in the depths of his despair. Wilder presents such people as strengthening and confirming the character of their beneficiaries as well as helping them over the rough spots.

The real “eighth day” of continued creativity is the work of a choice few in a world that practices little faith, hope, and love. Successes are ironically qualified. Ashley dies without learning that his name has been cleared; Sophia restores the family to solvency but lapses into insanity in later life; Roger reconciles the two families and marries one of the Lansing daughters, but their son turns out to be hostile and self-destructive. The author provides no glib answer to the questions his novel raises—why, for example, innocence suffers while ignorance, greed, and prejudice flourish. Taken as a whole, however, The Eighth Day modestly affirms that the struggle to live decent, caring lives, regardless of whether the effort receives acknowledgment, gives life its meaning.