Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The principal theme that unifies all the various elements of this multifaceted story is hope. Ethan Canin clearly announces that theme at the conclusion of the first paragraph: “I now think that hope is the essence of all good men.” The word “hope” recurs three other times during the course of the narrative, and always at the most crucial moments. What mystifies the narrator most about the bully, Mr. Pike, is the depth of his cynicism, a condition that demonstrates his utter lack of hope and forces him to live in a permanent state of despair. Pike (whose name derives from the words “pike,” an aggressive instrument of attack, and “piker,” a petty or stingy person) anticipates that his young elms will be infested and insists on cutting down the ancient tree in the narrator’s yard. Pike’s vision is so dark that it allows for virtually no hope, and the narrator labels him early in the story as a doomed and hopeless man. When the narrator descends into Pike’s bomb shelter, he palpably experiences the cynicism in the very structure of the building. Once he observes the bleak Pike becoming human and showing love for Kurt, the narrator begins to sense that Pike may be human after all. The major threshold experience that the narrator undergoes takes place when he observes Pike teaching Kurt about the heavens and the stellar constellations. Pike does not know the proper names for those magnificent configurations, so he creates his own—an act that overwhelms the narrator and makes him rethink his attitude toward the man. Indeed, the story’s title is one of Pike’s fabrications in his awkward attempt to reveal to his son the sublime order of the cosmos. The inestimable beauty of the stars pierces even Pike’s emotional armor, an accomplishment that restores a sense of hope to the nearly despairing narrator: “How could one not hope here? . . . Miracles . . . Anybody who has seen a cell divide could have invented religion.” Seeing Pike teaching his son what the narrator’s father taught him, and what the narrator has taught his students all of his professional life, he discovers himself in Pike.