Empire Falls Themes
by Richard Russo

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Empire Falls Themes

(Novels for Students)

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Human Nature versus Free Will
Early on, Russo poses the question of whether people’s personalities and tendencies are fixed at birth, as their inherent nature, or whether they can change at will. In the prologue, C. B. Whiting feels that by leaving his painting and poetry behind in Mexico, he is “violating his own best nature.” His father Honus is more of the opinion that, even if a man had a “best nature,” “it was probably your duty either to deny it or whip it into shape, show it who was boss.” Francine Whiting believes differently. She tells Miles in her imperious way: “Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.” This remark is ironic coming from Mrs. Whiting, since she has spent years directing the paths of Miles and his mother, using their own natures against them to keep them where she wants them. Apparently Mrs. Whiting believes she herself is exempt from this inability to direct one’s life because her mantra is “Power and control.”

Later, Miles considers the question of nature versus free will in reference to his father: “It probably was admirable that his father never battled his own nature, never expected more of himself than experience had taught him was wise, thereby avoiding disappointment and self-recrimination.” Disappointment and self-recrimination, of course, are all too familiar to Miles.

Empire Falls provides examples that show both that people are slaves to their inborn nature and that real change is possible. It does not seem likely, for instance, that Janine Roby is going to change. Though she claims, “People can change, and I’m changing,” her mother observes, “You aren’t changing, Janine . . . You’re just losing weight.” Janine just makes the same mistakes in new ways. She swings from one extreme to another: from Miles, a man with little passion, she jumps to Walt, a man whose passion is the only thing she enjoys.

David Roby, by contrast, seems to have achieved real change, though Miles continues to doubt him after three years of sobriety. He eventually realizes that he’s been unfair to David: “He’d . . . meant to learn to trust him, but instead merely fell into the habit of waiting for him to f—— up again, even though he hadn’t for a long time.”

Miles finally changes his passive attitude, but as with David, it takes a traumatic event—the discovery of Charlie Mayne’s true identity—to divert his well-worn path. The conclusion here is that without being shocked into self-awareness by a life-altering event, most people continue with their usual patterns.

Repression and its consequences is illustrated in several of the novel’s key characters. For instance, Mrs. Whiting’s description of Miles Roby as “a case study in repression” is fairly accurate. Miles allows the man who had an affair with his wife to eat regularly at his diner, live in his former house (while he resides in a tiny apartment over the Empire Grill), and even belittle his business tactics, all without a hostile word in return. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to give Walt the benefit of the doubt. Miles tells David, “I think he just comes in to let me know there’s no hard feelings.”

Similarly, Miles allows Mrs. Whiting to condescend to him on a regular basis. He does not object as she tactlessly espouses her theories on his personal motives and his marriage and speculates about his future actions as though his life were some sort of soap opera she enjoys switching on occasionally.

Miles is not really as saintly as he seems; he is simply repressing his anger. Russo demonstrates the consequence of all this repression through Miles’s uncharacteristically violent outburst towards the end of the novel. When Mrs. Whiting attempts to block his new business venture with Bea, Miles snaps. First, he arm-wrestles Walt and actually breaks his...

(The entire section is 1,947 words.)