Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although “The Farm” does not carry an explicit thesis about alcoholism, much of the story’s emotional resonance derives from the impact of alcoholism on its characters’ lives. Alcoholism is examined not merely as a clinical malady but as a metaphor for any syndrome by which alienated characters seek to remedy the lack of meaning in their lives. Tommy and Sarah are complacent, assured members of a privileged social class. They attempt to paper over the emotional gaps in their flawed and unexamined relationship by drinking and by maintaining a false sense of self-satisfaction. Joy Williams analyzes alcoholism as both a medical and sociological phenomenon but stresses primarily its destructive psychological effects. Alcoholism immures Tommy and Sarah within their own neuroses. It heightens the problems they already have and prevents them from finding any solutions to them.

The walls they have built around their own hypocrisies are shattered by the death of Steven Bettencourt. The killing introduces an alien and disturbing element into the couple’s lives, and forces them to interrogate all of their previous assumptions. There are also class and religious elements here: Tommy and Sarah are propertied and Protestant, whereas the Bettencourts are working-class Roman Catholics. More compellingly, Steven’s death makes Sarah, in particular, cognizant of the disturbing contradictions in her life that she previously repressed.

The nature of the title is significant. “The Farm” does not refer to the farm Tommy wants to buy Sarah at the end of the story but to the colloquialism “to have bought the farm,” meaning to have died. This phrase, introduced into the story by Genevieve in conversation with Sarah, implies that death is not just extinction or disappearance but entrance into a new and disturbing realm. Steven has “bought the farm” in figurative terms, but metaphorically, so have Tommy and Sarah. Steven’s death has made them aware of their own inadequacies. In order to escape this newfound self-knowledge, Tommy attempts to “buy the farm” in the sense in which one usually employs the word “farm,” to move his family to a new, reassuringly agricultural domicile. The serene and placid reference Tommy intends tumbles over into the more threatening and unsettling slang phrase. A conventionally restorative flight to bucolic safety is not feasible. Geographic distance alone will not restore the past. The couple’s earlier complacency is gone forever.