Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
This story, like Richard Yates’s other stories and novels, is a tale of loneliness, fatalism, and despair. Purposeless—lacking either comprehension of the present or vision for the future—Christine and Warren are like windup toys. They move randomly about their universe, bouncing off obstacles in unpredictable directions, only to encounter still new barriers they neither expected nor planned for. Warren is weak willed, exploitative, and self-absorbed. Although no admirable hero, he is no villain either. Rather, in Yates’s world, Warren is a victim of not loneliness but the fear of loneliness, and Christine seeks only a security she has never known. Their actions are no more self-determined than those of automatons.
The theme of the story is prevarication in all its forms. Most of the characters lie most of the time about almost everything. Alfred’s supposed citation for heroism in the war is actually a commendation from his enemy captors for being a cooperative and industrious prisoner of war. Christine lies to achieve the role of romantic motion pictures heroine that real life has denied her. Grace’s image as a faithful wife and doting mother veils the truth of her streetwalking past.
Little in the way of genuine feeling occurs among the characters. They are less concerned about the substance of things than about appearances. Warren evaluates Christine as one might a mannequin: hair dyed, legs short, knees thick, but “all right,” and “certainly young.” Warren finds Christine’s offer of free sex flattering not because he likes her but because the offer feels like a “triumph of masculinity.” He even evaluates a potential rival for Carol’s affections in New York by appearance. He asks her not what a new lover might do or be but what he might look like.
The story is not about emotion so much as about what happens in its absence. Warren, for all his initial rhapsodizing about Christine’s face and form, ends up dismissing her as nothing more than a “dumb little London streetwalker, after all.” The reader suspects that Carol’s desire to reunite may arise more from her failure to find love and happiness in New York than from any genuine rekindling of affection for Warren. Although Yates never moralizes or judges, Christine alone emerges as a sympathetic character. She is sorely flawed, but she keeps her dignity and has the courage to fight for what she believes.
Yates’s stories paint landscapes of detachment and despondency. That Warren and Christine can achieve such physical intimacy—yet remain separated from each other by a tangle of lies—is consistent with Yates’s view of destiny. People do not understand what they do. They do not make choices. Lacking commitment to a goal or to a person, these characters blunder their way from one misery to another. Their lives are like the played-backward music box Warren eventually discards: cheap, meaningless, and worthless.