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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945

Culture Clash Central to the story is the clash between Western and Eastern values and cultures. Bateman sums up the Western way of seeing things when he says, in answer to Edward’s question about how a man gets the best out of life, ‘‘By doing his duty, by hard work,...

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Culture Clash
Central to the story is the clash between Western and Eastern values and cultures. Bateman sums up the Western way of seeing things when he says, in answer to Edward’s question about how a man gets the best out of life, ‘‘By doing his duty, by hard work, by meeting all the obligations of his state and station.’’ Bateman, as an embodiment of the Chicago spirit of the 1920s, values money and power. He justifies this by saying that these assets help to create jobs for many people.

In contrast to the eternal hustle and bustle of Chicago, which is emblematic of Western civilization as a whole, is Tahiti. In this haven of the East, the leisurely, relaxed pace of life and the friendliness of the people suggest a completely different set of values. Much of this is shaped by the warm climate and the sheer beauty of the region, which seems to belong less to time than to eternity. For example, this is the view from the verandah of Arnold Jackson’s house: ‘‘The full moon, sailing across an unclouded sky, made a pathway on the broad sea that led to the boundless realms of Forever.’’

Edward soon finds in Tahiti that the Western values he formerly lived by were pointless. The things that mattered to him before no longer matter, as Isabel astutely deduces from his letters. Edward decides that the city life he has turned his back on is just a monotonous, draining routine of going to an office each day to work until nightfall and pursuing the same trivial round of leisure pursuits. Worldly ambition now means nothing to him, and Chicago seems like a prison.

If in the West there is an emphasis on achievement, progress, and the conquest of nature, the East prefers to live in harmony with nature. In place of the Western notion of progress is the value of acceptance, of taking life as it comes and as it is. But to Bateman’s Western mind, living by this alien set of values is nothing more than a ‘‘living death.’’ He tries to convince Edward that he has been ‘‘breathing poisoned air.’’ Bateman is entirely blind to the irony of an heir of the Hunter Motor Traction and Automobile Company talking to an inhabitant of the unpolluted South Seas about poisoned air (although to be fair to Bateman, few people in the 1920s could have been aware of the ill effects of air pollution by the automobile).

But Edward believes that it is in the Eastern paradise of Tahiti that he can best live according to his new values of beauty, truth, and goodness. Tahiti also stimulates him to a spiritual view of life. He believes that he has discovered his own soul in his life on the island, and he refers to the New Testament passage that says it will not profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul. Thus the dichotomy between the cultures of West and East is given a religious dimension—it is the West, of course, (in Edward’s view) that gains the world but at the price of losing what is most valuable about life.

Bateman, on the other hand, believes he can find such things as beauty and truth in Chicago. He is himself a man of integrity, and the story does not entirely favor the East at the expense of the West. He and Isabel value great art, for example, although in Bateman’s case this is somewhat undermined by his motivations, as he thinks of the great collection he plans to amass. He simply wants to outdo New York, which is Western competitive spirit at its best (or worst, depending on one’s point of view). Western art in any case is an artificial creation, quite different from the natural, artless beauty of the South Seas, a beauty that even Bateman is forced to acknowledge as he looks out of the window at Jackson’s house:

[Y]ou saw the vast calmness of the Pacific and twenty miles away, airy and unsubstantial like the fabric of a poet’s fancy, the unimaginable beauty of the island which is called Murea. It was all so lovely that Bateman stood abashed.

Nature versus Nurture
The story explores the old debate about whether people are what they are because of certain innate qualities (nature) or because they are shaped by the environment in which they live (nurture). The latter is clearly the case. Isabel, for example, is presented as a product of her environment. Bateman believes that ‘‘no city in the world could have produced her but Chicago.’’ Bateman and Edward, before Edward leaves for Tahiti, are also products of their environment. Their values and ambitions have been entirely shaped by the big city environment in which they were raised. Chicago is presented as the most important city in America. Although it is crowded, full of traffic and noise, Bateman does not regard this as a disadvantage. On the contrary, he sees it as the embodiment of a strong collective will to develop the city industrially and so create the kind of wealth that his family, as well as Isabel’s, enjoys.

It is because of the importance of environment in molding character that Edward undergoes such a profound change after arriving in Tahiti. At first he is the quintessential American, full of plans to bring the blessings of industrial and technological development to a backward portion of the world. But after a while, the climate, the beauty of the island, and the easygoing, relaxed people all work to change him.

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