Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The tension of the relationship between Colonel Min and his conscience, Major Lee, holds the narrative together. Colonel Min carries his reputation and his responsibilities with much solemnity. He has, of course, killed other men when the situation demanded it, and he is weighed down by the cruelties inflicted by war. In his brooding, Byronic moments, he sits in his quarters in the dark, listening to somber music. His long friendship with the idealistic Lee makes Lee his natural conscience. At one point after the coup, Min actually tells Lee: “There are many things we have to do together, do you understand? I suppose I can afford to have one prosecutor and one judge all put together in you?” Lee parries, “I am not your prosecutor and your judge!” Min, however, insists, “Ah, but you are, yes, you are!”

The strain of their complementarity sometimes becomes extremely difficult for both men. After the coup, when they are trying to put down General Ham’s rebellion, Min loses patience with Lee and tells him, in effect, to shut up. Min then lectures Lee: “If I always listened to your voice, Major, I would never, never get anything done in this maddening world! This world, do you understand, this world full of idiots like me in flesh and blood—not pale lifeless saints like you!” After Min has finally had to kill Ham and his men, Lee arouses Min’s extreme anger by calling him a murderer, and Min erupts by blistering Lee’s “tear-jerking, mushy, holier-than-thou self-righteousness and melodrama” and sneering at his “pure heart,” his “clean conscience,” and his precious “innocence.”

With the bloody denouement, in which Min dies and Lee blows a man to bits with a grenade, Lee’s long and exhausting apprenticeship to an absurd world ends with him completely disillusioned. When he says goodbye to Chaplain Koh, he is a changed man, and he cannot put much faith in such traditional pieties as the chaplain’s insistence that “Colonel Min did not die in vain.” Min states his existential philosophy when he tells Lee, “There is nothing out there in the heavens, Major. Remember? We have only ourselves.” This bleak credo is perhaps the main theme of the novel.