The principal themes in the novel are best summed up by the “two fevers” contained within Dolphus: the attraction of the Southern Games, with its emphasis on discipline and hard work in an ordered striving for perfection, and the seductive allure of Carnival, whose spirit is, even for a young boy, “robust, carefree, [and] cruel.” The need to resolve the conflict between the two attitudes toward life represented by the games and Carnival is universal, but it is also of particular relevance to the individual lives of Trinidadians and to the life of the nation itself: In Trinidad, Carnival has become institutionalized for economic and political as well as social reasons. In The Games Were Coming, Leon represents individual ambition and personal austerity carried to excess, while May illustrates the tragic consequences for those who live for today only to count the cost when the masquerade is over. Clearly, a balance is needed for the well-being of individuals as well as nations. As the case of Sylvia shows, however, the balance must be real and not based on a fragile morality or on social values which put a premium on the appearance of order and propriety while individual and public corruption flourish, fitting material for the calypso and the sly remark.
The frequent repetition of the phrase “the games were coming” as well as the many references to the approaching Carnival are structuring devices used to create tension, but the words “games” and “Carnival”—which refer to the abjuring of flesh—also have ironic possibilities for the lives of the central characters, especially Leon and Sylvia.