Themes and Meanings
Broadly speaking, the overall theme of the novel concerns the total meaning of existence. In his novels, Powers has consistently explored the meaning of life. He has explored in most of his work the roots of postmodern society.
To date, his conclusions about modern society have been tinged with pessimism. In The Gold Bug Variations, two men elect not to realize their potentials, and both of the women associated with these men are barren. Just as the men, by their own choices, do not bear professional offspring, neither can either woman bear human offspring.
Ironically, Stuart Ressler and his research team, having probed the origins of physical existence as they moved toward isolating the major building blocks of life, cannot understand the origins of the very consciousness that makes their exploration possible. According to Powers, that consciousness cannot understand its own origins.
Powers appears to suggest that although humans can move toward knowing, possibly even understanding, the real, physical world, they cannot so readily understand the more elusive nonphysical world that coexists alongside it. Powers has established a unique metaphysic in The Gold Bug Variations.
By positioning his novel in a time when the United States was seriously questioning its own values in terms of race, involvement in foreign conflicts such as the Vietnam War, and nationalism, he has set the stage for examining why some very promising people choose to withdraw from society rather than face it.