Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

Deception Deception is the main theme in The Grifters . It defines the book, the grifters themselves, and their lives. To be a grifter is to choose to live by working the system rather than working for the system. It means that you lie, cheat, steal, and, especially, con. There...

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Deception
Deception is the main theme in The Grifters. It defines the book, the grifters themselves, and their lives. To be a grifter is to choose to live by working the system rather than working for the system. It means that you lie, cheat, steal, and, especially, con. There is a strong thread of pride in doing so; it means you are in the know and probably smarter than the person and system you are cheating. There is also a thread of contempt. Mintz is horrified when he learns that Roy has been working a straight job, and Lilly is revolted when her son suggests late in the book that she too go straight. Working for a living is seen as the worst thing in the world. Clearly for Lilly, it is worse than getting tortured, since she is beaten and burned by Bobo, her con-man boss.

Deception is a matter of habit. The grifters con even when they do not need the money, almost on reflex. However, deception reaches deeper than that. The best examples of this are seen late in the novel, when Lilly sets out to reshape Roy’s understanding of her as a mother, and in Moira’s physical relationships. When Moira is having sex, she thinks of other things, and when she reflects on the past, we catch glimpses of her con-man mentor trying to convince her that lies about the nature of the universe are true. In The Grifters, then, deception is almost metaphysical. It seems built into the nature of the universe.

The Dangers of Desire
The main form desire takes in The Grifters is for sex and for the good/easy life. Needless to say, the two are intimately related. All of the main grifters are exceptionally good-looking, and they are used to getting what they want for free or cheap on their looks alone. When that fails, the women use sex. This is dangerous to their lovers, who risk their jobs and marriages. It is dangerous for the grifters themselves, as Moira ends up dead through her desire for Roy. All the grifters seem aware of how the objects of their desire are seductive and how desire may threaten them. This produces a kind of discipline: Roy, Lilly, and Moira all work to control their desires so that their desires do not control them.

Risk and Threat
The grifters continually estimate and work the odds, calculating how likely it is for a specific person to fall for a given con—and what the threat is if they fail. The best example of this is Lilly’s attempt to manage Bobo Justus. She knows she has been caught skimming and knows he is going to punish her. All of her actions after than point are intended to limit the damage he does to her, and each statement uttered is spoken after deciding whether it is more or less likely for him to kill her, hurt her more, and so on.

All three main themes in The Grifters fit together neatly, presenting a picture of a universe that is intensely dangerous, but full of rich, seductive attractions. It is not a fair world, and anyone who thinks it is fair is a fool. The grifters are the only ones in the know, and they move from fool to fool, conning them out of sex, money, jewels, and respect through their superior intelligence and knowledge of the rigged game.

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