Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major theme of Amy Hempel’s story is duality—duality of experience and memory, and the more universal knowledge, but a very singular experience, that everyone is going to die. The motif of duality is introduced in the narrator’s statement, “things are two ways at once,” and are underscored by his several descriptions of experiencing events in two—usually opposite—ways simultaneously: near and far, fast and slow, hot and cold, not being there but being there. These same descriptions reflect the duality of memory: Memory brings things from the past (far away) into the present (closer)—a kind of binocular-vision of one’s life. Memory also brings things that are absent into presence, such as the nurse: “After she leaves the room, for a short time the room is like when she was here. She is not here, but the idea of her is.” Memory is stimulated by smells: a Christmas candle, smoke, face powder; any one of these odors recalls into the present a person, an event, or both.

The concept of life is a dual one, for it must include the notion of death. Living is not just a movement through space and time, but also a movement toward death. From the moment of birth, each person begins to die, and living is that time in between. Death is quietly present throughout, although it is mentioned indirectly only once, in the teacher’s observation, and directly once, when the narrator mentions the night his mother died. The narrator himself could have...

(The entire section is 551 words.)