Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The story of Gary Gilmore addresses several important public issues, including those of capital punishment, of the causes and remedies for criminality, and of a defendant’s right to refuse appeal and even to oppose the efforts of outsiders to reverse a death sentence. Except in an afterword, Mailer does not speak in his own voice, but varied commentary on legal, social, and ethical questions emerges from the mouths of the participants in this shabby drama of contemporary crime and punishment.

The Executioner’s Song is not a political tract, however, and its central theme is the significance and value of an individual existence, even that of someone as banal and destructive as Gary Gilmore. Gilmore is portrayed as quite aware of his public persona and as brooding over what he has achieved during his troubled thirty-five years. Among other things, he has, on impulse, extinguished the lives of two young men. Norman Mailer, too, confronted the challenge of one dismal life among billions of others. Why should one of the most distinguished contemporary novelists devote the considerable time and energy that Mailer did to discovering some shape to this ostensibly unamenable material? What did Gilmore hope to accomplish, and what, in writing about him, did Mailer hope to accomplish?

A choir of “Western Voices” and “Eastern Voices,” The Executioner’s Song is an attempt to come to terms with the varied carols of the...

(The entire section is 425 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Executioner's Song, Mailer is exploring the uncertainties of an American selfhood and a society that build up into an intolerable tension in his main characters. Gilmore, for example, cannot control his compulsive and ambiguous behavior. He arbitrarily kills a clean-cut gas station attendant and provides no convincing explanation. Yet by implication, by the way Mailer sets his scenes in this understated "true life novel," it is clear that Gilmore cannot abide the antiseptic neatness of the gas station attendant, for Gilmore "was marked up much more than" his cousin Brenda (who arranged his release from prison) expected. Just looking at one of his very bad scars she feels a "strong sense of woe." This is a telling phrase in a book that does not attempt comprehensive explanations of human behavior. Rather, the themes are rigorously understated, and the writer's style is meant to evoke a kind of emptiness in the environment that cannot be easily filled or rationalized with words.

(The entire section is 162 words.)