Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

If A Generous Man is a novel of discovery, then it is important to recognize what is being discovered. Milo comes to understand the meaning of loving and sharing, but he also discovers his place as a responsible, honest adult. The need to escape—whether that of the frustrated Kate Pomeroy escaping through sex or that of Lois’s mother escaping her past by lying—plays an important role in this understanding of honest adulthood. Clearly, at the end of the novel, both Milo and Lois discover that they cannot escape from their problems. Just as they are set to leave their family problems behind, Rato, the symbol of innocence, emerges from the woods to direct them back to a world of responsibility.

Price uses symbols rather overtly, but with that use they acquire both symbolic and literal meanings. Thus, Death, the snake, becomes both a character and a symbol. As a character, it is literally a snake, slithering through the woods, running from dogs, and following its instincts by trying to kill its enemies. As a symbol, it stands for death, its name. In that sense, Death is defeated by Milo, but it also leads a group of men on a race through the woods. As a symbol of nature, Death the snake shows that he can defeat the human who takes him too lightly. Finally, as a phallic symbol, Death serves many purposes. First, Lois, the snake handler, tames Death much as she seeks to tame Milo. In this sense, it is ironic that Death was a gift to Lois’s mother, given by her father upon learning that the woman was pregnant. Finally, Price’s Death has obvious phallic implications when the impotent Sheriff Pomeroy shoots Death with a pistol while the snake is wound around Milo, the boy who only hours before had been sleeping with the sheriff’s wife.

In addition, Price’s novel is full of biblical allusions and symbols too numerous to detail here. In this respect, A Generous Man follows a well-worn path in Southern fiction.