Alienation, greed, and the identity problem are the primary thematic motifs of this novel and the force behind all the events that determine the fate of the families in it over many years. Related to these motifs, and reinforcing them, is the omnipresence of the past and the inability of people to separate their fantasies from the realities of the present. Observing Randy Shepherd, Archer says: “The mind that looked at me through his eyes was like muddy water continually stirred by fears and fantasies and old greed.” The observation is just as valid for Irene and Larry Chalmers, Louise Swain, Jean Trask, Eldon Swain, Mrs. Shepherd, and both Smitherams. The antique gold box, whose disappearance leads to Archer’s involvement, reinforces the theme of man’s greed: It is sometimes called a “Pandora’s box,” with the allusion to Zeus’s daughter calling the reader’s attention to the source of man’s troubles, the god’s vengeance against greedy man.
There is another important thematic element. One of Macdonald’s working titles for the book was “The Stolen War,” and he confided to an editor at Knopf that the “original intent of the novel was anti-war” and he “drained off some of the sorrow of this national moment into it.” Macdonald had long been concerned with the aftereffects of war on people and how it wrought permanent emotional changes. Written during the Vietnam War (which is a source of conflict between Nick and his parents), this novel shows how World War II destroyed Larry Chalmers’s chances for a normal life, reducing him to a drug-dependent automaton whose phony stories of wartime experiences eventually became inseparable from reality. At the end, when he cuts his throat with an old straight razor, Archer describes the scene: “Chalmers was sitting in the judge’s swivel chair, his head inclined rather oddly to one side. He had on a blue naval uniform with a full commander’s three gold stripes. Blood from his cut throat had run down over his row of battle ribbons, making them all one color.”