Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Were it not for the story’s obvious dual point of view—an older, mature narrator looking back at his foolish younger self—the reader could be forgiven for dismissing “Greasy Lake” as a sordid and superficial teenage thriller. The very fact that the mature narrator isolates this one night out of all of his youth for dramatization implies its importance. His experience amounts, in fact, to a harrowing “initiation ritual,” in anthropological terms, or a “dark night of the soul,” in religious terms. By the end he has taken one large step toward maturity.

The principal theme of the story could be summarized quite well in the old Greek saying, “Through suffering comes wisdom.” Several details support this reading. Much of the action turns on mistakes that the narrator must recognize as such and atone for—above all, his belief that he and his friends are “bad characters.” They attempt to bolster this self-image by “razzing” their friend in the Chevy—another mistake, which is followed by yet another when the narrator drops his car key and cannot flee the enraged Bobby. The narrator, however, becomes “bad” in a moral sense when he hits Bobby with the tire iron, then tries to rape the girl. When he flees into the brush at the approach of the car, he is more shaken by guilt than by fear that Bobby’s friends will hurt him. He is, in fact, later overjoyed to hear the sound of Bobby’s voice. His punishment comes in several...

(The entire section is 532 words.)