Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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“Home Course in Religion” is a poem about hunger (literally and figuratively) and the human pain or suffering that is a prerequisite to growth. In the poem, Soto explores the motif of hunger and universalizes one man’s search for spiritual meaning in a world that seems devoid of spirituality.

Soto addresses the issues of hunger and poverty in several of his poems. The poem “Salt,” in Where The Sparrows Work Hard (1987), poignantly describes two young boys whose hunger destroys their energy, even their will to live. “The Wound,” in Tale of Sunlight (1978), focuses on the pain and anguish one young child endures as a result of his abject poverty. Although not directly stated, the boy suffers from a disease endemic to the impoverished. While hunger in both “The Wound” and “Home Course in Religion” begins as actual physical deprivation, it becomes a catalyst to attain a deeper understanding, a metaphysical explanation for the persona’s pain.

The young man’s quest in “Home Course in Religion” is complicated by his increasing involvement with his girlfriend. As his physical attraction to her intensifies, so too do his feelings of guilt and its accompanying remorse. One evening after his girlfriend leaves, he prays in his room, then crosses himself with his “fingertips\ Pushed into [his] flesh.” His sense of guilt leads him to punish himself masochistically for what he perceives to be sins of the flesh. As he searches for answers to his conflicting feelings in a religious book, he falls asleep.

On the third and final day of his journey, the young man once again tries to sort through another book, but the “good air” leaves his brain, and he falls asleep. When his girlfriend arrives, she wakes him, literally and metaphorically, from his slumber. During the course of the evening, they become physically intimate, an intimacy that leads him to a deeper understanding of himself: People feel lonely “because they don’t know themselves.” By becoming sexually involved with her, he begins to acknowledge his need for life-affirming vitality. His immediate reaction to the sexual contact is similar to their first physical experience: He begins to feel “ashamed.” His need to expiate his guilt drives him again to the Bible and to his futile search for divine affirmation. However, the sense of shame escalates when he realizes that the same hand that touched her turns the pages of the Bible. Out of a sense of remorse, he washes his hand, an act of physical, emotional, and spiritual purification. After performing this act, he begins to contemplate the evening during a “cat-and-dog storm” and realizes that he “might be in the wrong line of belief.” This simple understatement symbolically underscores his epiphany, and the “line” he refers to implies a simultaneous movement away from systematic, organized religious dogma and toward more subtle, subjective, and life-affirming personal insights.