Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Several of the themes that pervade William Goyen’s fiction are to be found in this early story: the isolation and loneliness of human beings; the uneasy relationship between the past and the present; the melancholy quality of people’s lives; and the profoundly important, poignant, and loving nature of storytelling.

Everyone in “Ghost and Flesh, Water and Dirt” is essentially alone. Raymon Emmons never attained more than a brief connection with any other human being; the isolation of Nick Natowski, the young sailor from Chicago on his way to a cold death in the Pacific, was only briefly interrupted by his affair with Margy. Even Fursta Evans, for all her efforts, never makes a lasting connection with anyone. The listener in the bar is remote and only vaguely interested in Margy’s tale; Margy lives a lonely and resigned existence, punctuated by periods of sadness so intense that she could not leave the seclusion of her house if her “life depended on it.” This story and Goyen’s fiction in general seem to confirm Margy’s assertions that “the fire blazes but the ashes last forever,” that the joys of life are fragile, evanescent, and too often unrecognized or unacknowledged (“it’s true that you never miss water till the well runs dry, tiz truly true”), and that a sense of loss, of opportunities missed and promises unrealized, is an inevitable part of human life.

Margy Emmons is clearly haunted by the past, and she speaks movingly and convincingly of the interpenetration of past and present, ghost and flesh, and even of the dominance of the past. Her melancholy example and her unsettling bondage to ghosts, to failure and isolation, are, however, opposed quite forcefully by the words and actions of Fursta Evans. Fursta argues for the primacy of the present. She believes that the...

(The entire section is 746 words.)