Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

William Faulkner once said that the basis of all great literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. William H. Gass’s intellectual first-person narrator (a college professor and poet) is a perfect example of carrying this conflict to an undesirable end. The title and opening lines of the story identify the most crucial conflict: the heart of the country (a clichéd metaphor for the Midwest) is presented as withered, too long deprived of love and true union with others, with nature, or with any real order beyond the individual’s own mind. In turn, the heart of the Midwest is presented through the words and mind of one individual, who both typifies and identifies the conflicts that have crippled his own heart and, by extension, the heart of his vast country.

Although the reader can and must see beyond the narrator’s acknowledged narrow point of view, the reader cannot deny the strength of the conflicts that the narrator exposes. The heart cries out with longing for love of and love from others but seldom finds lasting union and harmony, and even then, it knows deeply that they will pass. Humankind, like the narrator, desires an always blooming spring of youth and a fruitful harvest of fame, always full of new hopes and promises, only to find that, because the pruning and spraying of the fruit trees has been neglected, there is only rotten fruit to harvest. The heart, then, becomes fearful, depressed, isolated, and cold, retreating before the...

(The entire section is 537 words.)