Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The central theme of The Fire-Dwellers is the difficulty of achieving genuine communication among individuals. The novel opens with Stacey viewing her life through a full-length mirror. She sees images there that are “less real than real and yet more sharply focused because isolated and limited by a frame.” Everything in the frame is shabby and filtered as if displayed on a television screen. Stacey is caught up in a wasteland existence in which an internal fire keeps her from communicating with her family and with herself. A nursery rhyme—“Ladybird, ladybird,/ Fly away home;/ Your house is on fire,/ Your children are gone”—haunts Stacey throughout the novel. Stacey’s most sincere fear is that God, to punish her for her constant complaining or sinning, will take her children away from her or allow them to be harmed in some way.

Stacey develops from an exasperated woman into one who thinks that maybe trivialities are not so bad after all because they are something on which to focus. She wonders, “Will the fires go on, inside and out?” She is stronger than she thinks and will plod on out of conviction that she loves her children and is willing to accept even silence as a form of positive communication. She has learned that all communication does not have to be in the color and detail she would like it to be.

Laurence’s style is related to what she is attempting to do thematically. The novel shifts abruptly between third person and first and includes fantasies, dreams, flashbacks, and media headlines. The style reinforces the fragmented, out-of-control nature of the characters’ frantic lives; the multi-layered narrative technique is appropriate for a novel in which it is imperative for the reader to see the contrast between Stacey’s thoughts and her actions and words.