Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

The Firm is a typical suspense novel, ending in a hair-raising chase with the protagonist and his associates being pursued by two powerful and dangerous forces. As a typical example of this genre, The Firm is not overly burdened with theme or meaning, since its primary purpose is obviously to hold the attention of the reader. The novel is, in the popular parlance, a “page-turner,” and thus it is not necessary nor even desirable for the author to burden the reader’s mind with philosophical or moral considerations. Certainly, the actions of the protagonist have heavy ethical implications, but what the ultimate ethical statement of the novel is intended to be is difficult to say. If Mitchell and his associates had merely defeated the Mafia and escaped their murderous plans, a clear moral statement would have been evident in the novel. Yet they also outwit the FBI and escape with a large amount of cash, thus benefiting indirectly from the very illegal acts they were supposed to expose. As a consequence, the meaning to be drawn from the novel is clouded.

John Grisham’s reason for turning to the suspense-chase genre for his second novel was probably a result of the failure of his first novel, A Time to Kill: A Novel of Retribution (1989). That book dramatized social problems, including race relations, and contained serious moral and ethical implications, but it attracted little attention from the reading public or critics. Thus Grisham apparently determined after that failure to write a book that would sell, and he did. Ironically, as a result of the phenomenal success of The Firm, A Time to Kill subsequently became a best-seller in its own right.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

The characters in The Firm frequently debate the problem of what loyalty costs. Bendini, Lambert & Locke buy loyalty from the attorneys they hire, eventually paying them so much and so completely co-opting their lives that the young associates become willing partners, too consumed with enjoying consumables to worry about the morals of their practice. The wife of an associate explains to Abby, Mitch's wife: "It's a question of loyalty. If all your money comes from one source, then you tend to be very loyal to that source. The firm demands extreme loyalty. Lamar [her husband] says there's never talk of leaving. They're all happy, and either rich or getting that way." The firm seeks out people to whom money will matter; the character type they recruit suggests some psychological insight on Grisham's part in creating the firm's methods.

The firm periodically scours the top law schools for candidates to pursue as associates. Mitch fits the type in his humble origins — he was raised in poor, fatherless circumstances in Kentucky — and in his drive to be better than others, to rise above his roots. Writing from the perspective of the firm's partners, Grisham explains: "The poverty hurt, and they assumed, correctly, it had bred the intense desire to succeed. He had worked thirty hours a week at an all-night convenience store while playing football and making perfect grades. They knew he seldom slept. They knew he was hungry. He was their man." The firm does not want someone who will simply grab at the money, but someone who will be proud to work hard in earning it. The firm builds loyalty by rewarding hard work, thereby massaging the ego of the hard worker that his effort is recognized. Mitch resolves to win the awe of the partners by always arriving first at the office, even if he must be there at 4 a.m.; if they recognize such immense effort, the partners believe, he will eventually become their willing accomplice. Avery Tolar, the tax specialist who is Mitch's mentor in the firm, also exemplifies the type: The product of a broken home and unstable foster care, Avery won a scholarship to college and became an academic star in law school. Mitch and Avery (and presumably many others in the forty-member firm) typify the American Dream of achieving material success by unstinting hard work. The firm perverts the American Dream by directing the devoted labors of such men as Mitch and Avery toward evil purposes.

The firm also purchases loyalty by instilling fear, as exemplified when the security chief, DeVasher, threatens to give Abby proof of Mitch's adulterous liaison in the Cayman Islands unless Mitch cooperates with the rest of the firm. The associates who make partner protect the firm for fear of their own security; their wealth and position evaporate if the authorities ever crack the firm's criminal network. The controllers of the firm reason that money and fear will secure enough loyalty to keep the enterprise going.

Yet the novel posits other loyalties that are stronger than those based on dollars. Personal relationships build a much firmer species of loyalty. Although he does betray her when tempted by a beautiful whore, Mitch remains ultimately loyal to Abby, as solicitous of her safety as his own. His older brother Ray virtually raised Mitch, and although Ray is a violent felon serving time in prison, Mitch remains bonded to him. In prison, Ray befriended and defended a convicted policeman named Eddie Lomax, and their bond remains so strong that Eddie readily helps out Ray's brother. After Eddie's death, his secretary Tammy turns to Mitch for help and joins Mitch's efforts to snare evidence from the firm for the FBI. This network of relationships cannot be shaken by money nor by fear of safety, as these characters take great (and unnecessary) risks for each other. Grisham positions this trusting network against the firm, which offers no such personal, emotional supports. Late in the novel, as the firm's members hunt a beach community for the escaped Mitch, Lamar Quin, who had been Mitch's closest friend in the firm, spots Ray, but declines to alert the Mafia henchman. If Mitch gets away, Lamar may go to prison, but Lamar lets his friend escape. In Grisham's world view, the ultimate loyalty cannot be bought but can be earned.

This loyalty based on relationships is as close to a moral order as the novel provides. Mitch does not work against the firm because the firm is immoral. Even the FBI does not use basic right and wrong to lure Mitch: They combine payment for services with threat of arrest for not cooperating. So The Firm offers a standard of conduct in which higher moral principles are not as strong as money, but in which the strongest standard is preservation of self and of valued others. That personal loyalties matter, even to Mitch, may be the novel's great consolation.

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