Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Jailbird is one prolonged black joke about a society that has rejected Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount for a new gospel of acquisition. It unrelentingly satirizes the power-hungry and money-hungry elite of American society. The running joke about the incompetencies of Harvard men emphasizes this point. Throughout Starbuck’s own undistinguished career, he is controlled by rich people, from McCone’s first attempts to mold him to Mary Kathleen’s last act of philanthropy. Starbuck’s plight, along with that of the other major characters, emphasizes what happens to the little people in a capitalistic system.

An important focus of the novel is on the historical account of Sacco and Vanzetti, two labor leaders in the 1920’s who were executed on suspect murder charges despite massive public protests. Jailbird’s epigraph comes from Sacco’s last letter to his thirteen-year-old son: “Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends.” As young agitators in the 1930’s, Mary Kathleen and Starbuck hear Sacco and Vanzetti’s story told by Kenneth Whistler, a dynamic union organizer, at a labor rally. Whistler’s vivid account and vision of a socialist utopia lies behind Mary Kathleen’s attempt to rescue the American people from their economy by leaving them RAMJAC.

Yet Starbuck finds, unsettlingly, that few people in 1977 have even heard of Sacco and...

(The entire section is 536 words.)