Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692

At its most obvious level, Gerald's Party is about the insensitivity and cruelty of certain modes of social interaction. The entire novel covers a party given by the narrator, whose last name and occupation are never revealed, and his amazingly docile wife. During the evening, couples pair off in unexpected...

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At its most obvious level, Gerald's Party is about the insensitivity and cruelty of certain modes of social interaction. The entire novel covers a party given by the narrator, whose last name and occupation are never revealed, and his amazingly docile wife. During the evening, couples pair off in unexpected groupings, pretentious discussions of art and theater take place, a teenager loses both her virginity and her father, an actress is murdered, a painter commits suicide, a woman dying of cancer breaks a leg and must go to the hospital, a man is bludgeoned to death by police using croquet mallets, another is shot by an overzealous cop then put out of his misery by his best friend Gerald, a plumber is called in to fix a broken toilet, and a dwarf who cannot possibly have committed the murder is arrested for it. While all this is taking place, the party continues around the various bodies and reminders of the deaths of Ros, Roger, Tania, and Vic. At the most elementary level, then, Gerald's Party suggests issues such as uninhibited hedonism and their implications for human relationships.

As is usual in Coover's fiction, however, much more subtle issues are at work. Critic Jackson Cope argues persuasively that the novel is about the "crime of memory" and those partial, therefore false, fictions memory dredges up. This seems particularly true of Gerald's constant preoccupation with incompletely recalled erotic encounters in Europe and sexual adventures with Ros, the first murder victim, while the present moment descends into chaos: his guests are being killed; another is bludgeoned by the police; his wife is sexually abused by officers questioning her; and his four-year-old son is exposed to gruesome scenes that will scar him forever. The idea that the novel is about the fictive tyranny of memory is further supported by such evidence as the allusion in both novel and its predecessor (the story "You Must remember This") to the film classic Casablanca and one philosophical victim's interpretation of Lot's Wife, one of many semi-pornographic plays Ros was in, as "only turning back is [a crime]; rigidified memory, attachment to the past."

Finally, Gerald's Party is about a theme that has been latent in Coover's fiction since the beginning: narcissism, or excessive self-contemplation and self-love. Ros, an actress with little talent for lines but who enjoys exhibitionism, whether on stage, in film, or in photographs, represents a literal form of narcissism which is mocked in her death, when her body parts are insensitively exposed and their lifelessness casts confusion on everyone. The painter Tania is narcissistic in that many of her paintings feature herself as the central subject and most are adorned with images from Tania's past works. Like Narcissus in classical lore, Tania drowns; unlike Narcissus, she dies by suicidal (not accidental) self-contemplation. Nymph Sally Ann, in her campaign to seduce Gerald, sews patches containing prurient slogans to her jeans to call attention to her flowering sexuality and does not mind when she and Gerald are discovered in a compromising position.

The two most important characters are also narcissists. Gerald recalls Ros's appeal not merely as sexual but as a series of loving hugs and greetings that made him feel special; Alison, the woman Gerald has planned this party to seduce, appeals to him for similar reasons. He describes her eyes in narcissistic terms: "those beckoning pools of hers which yet reflected my own gaze." His party is planned to minister to his self-love, but he almost meets his match in Inspector Pardew, called in to solve the crime. Pardew pontificates on "holistic criminalistics" and the uniqueness of his position as a rational detective. He does, however, pin the guilt on someone who could not have committed the crime. The principal bit of physical evidence, an ice pick, was planted by the inspector. Although heroes of detective literature like Sherlock Holmes (whom Pardew imitates even while he reminds us more of Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling hero of 1960s and 1970s films) or Nero Wolfe are often eccentric and egocentric, their superior intellect and grasp of reality justify this. The primary reason for the inspector's eccentricity is narcissism.

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