Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

As is common in E. Annie Proulx’s stories, landscape plays a critical role. In this story, the rural setting in the foothills of the Big Horns is a powerful force that contributes to the main character’s demise. Mero had long ago abandoned this harsh environment, but he naturally feels compelled to return on receiving the news of his brother’s death. The landscape theme becomes pronounced as the story reaches its climactic moment. The environment kills Mero as he struggles to find shelter from the snow. The plight of a struggling human in the midst of an indifferent and dangerous landscape hearkens back to the works of naturalist writers of the late nineteenth century such as Stephen Crane and Jack London. Mero’s conflict, like the conflicts in many of the naturalists’ stories, suggests a human struggle against ominous environmental forces in which survival is largely a matter of chance.

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Another important theme in the story is the notion of returning home. Mero has been away sixty years, but the story is framed with his origins and death in the harsh West. Apparently, Mero abandoned the poverty of his ranching family to reinvent himself in an eastern urban setting, but the compulsion to see his brother causes him to return to his place of origin and former life.

The story also suggests that life is a journey, and the episodes encountered along the road define human character and destiny. The related theme of unfinished business is expressed through the tale of the steer. The story hints that there are unpleasant consequences for not finishing jobs, for quitting before the appropriate time.

In a more pessimistic existential sense, the story puts forth the idea that human activity is essentially futile when the greater context of imminent death is considered. Mero cannot evade the symbolic steer, just as one cannot evade death. Attempts at redefining oneself are, in the end, relatively pointless or at least temporary and therefore limited.

These themes correlate with the implied theme of brothers living united in purpose and spirit. Though the story does not reveal any overt antipathy between Rollo and Mero, they have lived in separation from each other. Rollo had intended to one day check up on Mero, but he did not fulfill that intention. In the end, this separation is problematic.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981

Memory
From the time that Mero leaves his family’s ranch in 1936, he is determined to put the past behind him, and he chooses not to return ‘‘to see the old man and Rollo, bankrupt and ruined, because he knew they were.’’ He makes many attempts to forget his past, beginning with his eating habits. In the train station on his way out of town in 1936, he cannot eat a steak. He cuts into it and sees ‘‘the blood spread across the white plate.’’ He equates the bloody meat with ‘‘the beast, mouth agape in mute bawling,’’ an image of the cattle he used to slaughter. As a result, he becomes a vegetarian. He also moves to Massachusetts, serves in World War II, gets married several times, makes many successful investments, and becomes a local politician. Ultimately, however, these attempts to bury the past do not succeed. When he begins driving west to his brother’s funeral, the physical journey quickly becomes a psychological journey into Mero’s insecure past. When he gets to Wyoming, the land looks exactly as he remembers it, a fact that disturbs him since he has worked so hard to change himself. ‘‘He felt himself slip back; the calm of eighty-three years sheeted off him like water.’’ However, not everything is the way that he remembers it. He is surprised when he does not find the entrance to the ranch, since it is ‘‘so clear and sharp in his mind.’’ After pulling into the wrong entrance and getting stuck, he realizes he has made a mistake. His faith in his memory starts to fade, and he starts to notice the harsh landscape: ‘‘The remembered gates collapsed, fences wavered, while the badland features swelled into massive prominence.’’

Mortality
Death is inevitable for all mortals, but those who think themselves invincible sometimes die earlier than they might have. This is the case with Mero, whose cockiness leads him into a fatal situa tion. Mero’s overconfidence is a side effect of his attempts to bury the past. He has worked hard, lived a healthy life, and reached a point where he feels that his money and lifestyle have made him nearly invincible. When he first gets the call from Louise, he tells her he will drive from Massachusetts to Wyoming. She is concerned that Mero, at eightythree, might not be able to make the trip. His response is confident: ‘‘Four days; he would be there by Saturday afternoon.’’ However, on the trip, Mero begins to exhibit signs of his age. He gets confused in traffic and ends up causing a car accident. He is unconcerned and just buys a new car, relishing the thought that he is able to do whatever he wants: ‘‘He could do that if he liked, buy cars like packs of cigarettes and smoke them up.’’ He cannot find the kind of food he likes to eat and goes hungry instead, thinking he is strong enough to handle it. When he is unable to find the entrance to the ranch, he briefly considers finding shelter then rules out this possibility, unwilling to give up. Mero looks for the entrance one more time and thinks that he has found it. ‘‘He turned in, feeling a little triumph.’’ When he gets stuck, he realizes he was mistaken. He realizes that his old car, which he carelessly tossed away after the accident, contains all of his emergency road supplies like food, water, and car phone. Instead of staying in his new car all night and using its heater to keep himself warm, he tries to free the vehicle. In the process, he mistakenly thinks that he has locked himself out of the car and breaks one of the windows. This ruins his only shelter, bringing about a freezing death that might have been avoided if Mero had not forgotten his mortality.

Sexual Confusion
Although Mero successfully buries most aspects of his Wyoming life for sixty years, his past still haunts him in his love life. At one point, Mero is congratulating himself on all of the women he has had in his life: ‘‘How many women were out there! He had married three of them and sampled plenty.’’ However, the truth is, Mero has a hard time sustaining a romantic relationship as a result of his confused sexual beliefs. His first exposure to sex came as a child, when his father told him to take an anthropologist to see some Native-American rock drawings. The anthropologist points out the stone carvings of female genitalia, an image that becomes fixed in his mind. From that point on, ‘‘no fleshly examples ever conquered his belief in the subterranean stony structure of female genitalia.’’ The only woman he ever imagined differently was his father’s girlfriend, whom he associates with a horse: ‘‘If you admired horses, you’d go for her with her arched neck and horsy buttocks, so high and haunchy you’d want to clap her on the rear.’’ After the woman tells them the story of the half-skinned steer, Mero dreams ‘‘of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.’’ Sex, horses, and his sense of revulsion over the cattle slaughtering that he has done in his life become fused in his mind with the image of this woman. He also notices the developing relationship between the woman and Rollo, which further encourages him to leave. Even this decision is described in animalistic terms. The narrator notes that Mero had ‘‘learned from television nature programs that it had been time for him to find his own territory and his own woman.’’ Even when he is making the journey back to Wyoming, sixty years later, Mero wonders ‘‘if Rollo had got the girlfriend away from the old man, thrown a saddle on her, and ridden off into the sunset.’’

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