Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

Although the story is most obviously about the birth of Charles and Katherine’s first child, it really focuses more on their marriage. Their relationship calls up the comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace in its movement from peace to turmoil and back again. The marriage’s precariousness is most shockingly demonstrated in Charles’s assault on his pregnant wife, which sets the stage for the story’s two central themes, struggle and redemption. The story’s primary theme is struggle—out of which joy may possibly emerge. As Katherine is struggling to give birth to their child, the more fundamental conflict between her and her husband is unfolding.

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Charles’s struggle with himself is the appropriate culmination of a story that has struggle as its central theme. Originating with Nathaniel’s struggle to be born, the story reveals the struggle in the relationship between Charles and Katherine. Perhaps the reference to War and Peace overstates the difficulties that the couple experience and their significance, but the author’s quotation from the Russian masterpiece is justified by subsequent events, which enact the same unnerving, uncanny, and ultimately redemptive combination of objective menace and personal deliverance. Though Katherine is more able to offer Charles immediate emotional comfort, such a resource has to find its own season in him, has to occur naturally, as peace follows war.

Out of this central theme comes the story’s complementary theme, redemption, again evoked by the mention of Tolstoy, who often treated this theme, and by the specific quotation from War and Peace at the beginning of the story. However, the most obvious resolution to the theme of struggle is not employed: The birth of the child is no cause for joy but is rather one for grief. At the end of the story, however, at the point at which true understanding is reached by Charles, he realizes “that the child had always been with him, at the edges of his mind and in his everyday thoughts, as much as any of their living children (more, he thought).” By virtue of never having lived, Nathaniel haunts his father until such time as Charles’s spirit is assuaged and he can make his peace with his dead firstborn. One of the story’s most commanding artistic features is that it neither shuns the metaphysical dimension of its material nor pretentiously exploits it. The dimension arises with persuasive ease out of the material’s naturalistic foreground. The story is no more a philosophical speculation than it is an obstetrical case history: It informally declares itself to be an experience lived. The story thus outgrows, though never forgets, the context of the delivery room. More important, Charles perceives in his closing, consummating moment of acceptance the current of energy common to all living things and which all living things experience.

At the end of the story, Charles undergoes a rebirth. In terms that invoke the imagery of light and vision, Charles “began at last to be able to begin again to see.” The inference is that, not only in the aftermath of the firstborn’s tragic birth but also in all the events leading up to and surrounding it, Charles has experienced a type of blindness. His stumbling, erratic footwork may be cited as confirmation of his condition.

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Characters