A Light in the Window

by Jan Karon

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126

Once again, as in Karon's previous novel At Home in Mitford (1994; see separate entry), separation and loneliness are underlying themes. Father Tim's restful vacation in Ireland with his cousins Walter and Katherine has given him time to think about his future in Mitford. Still not ready to commit to marriage, he intends to give Cynthia a Waterford crystal vase and maybe his mother's amethyst brooch and accept her invitation to "go steady." However, Cynthia's career interferes with such a casual relationship. During most of the novel, Cynthia lives in a New York City apartment and keeps in touch with Father Tim through love letters.

When Father Tim is with Cynthia, he knows how much he needs her and enjoys her company. When they are apart, he admits his emotional impotence and fear of marriage. He asks himself: Can a sixty-year-old bachelor combine marriage with the ministry? Will I lose control of my life? Will my diabetes interfere? Can I share my bed with Cynthia? Will we truly become one flesh? And what about my dog Barnabas and her cat Violet?

During their on-and-off courtship, Father Tim gains insight into his own personality. Although other people think he is compassionate, he admits to himself that he is a bachelor because he selfish and unemotional. His heart has been "cold granite" until Cynthia, Dooley, and Barnabas, his dog, came along. Father Tim's friends and acquaintances urge him to marry Cynthia, but he procrastinates. Although Cynthia has no emotional fence around her life, her career as a successful writer and illustrator requires much time in isolation. After Father Tim proposes marriage, she tells him that she lacks qualities of a traditional rector's wife. She cannot sing, play an organ, do church dinners, or wash altar linens. However, she promises that she will give him plenty of tender, loving care.

Another theme in the novel emerges from childhood memories that either enrich or twist adult lives. Miss Sadie shares her memories of living in the wash house with her mother and father and China May, Louella's mother, during the time that Fernbank was under construction. Their relationship was close and affectionate in such a cozy environment with no taint of racial prejudice.

Miss Sadie also shares with Father Tim how Angelo Francesca from Florence, Italy, and his young son Leonardo painted the ceiling of the ballroom. They lived in Mitford for many months as they fresco-painted angels floating across a background of blue sky and white clouds. One angel has a rosebud in her fingertips.

Miss Sadie recalls the time she went on a picnic with Leon and his father. She and Leon were playing at an abandoned house site, and she fell six feet down a well, "stuffed in there like a pimiento in an olive." After Leon could not find her, he alerted his father and a search began, which lasted all night. During prayer, Leon had a vision of an angel that led him to Miss Sadie. The angel with the rosebud is the one that Leon saw in his vision.

Buck Leeper recalls a childhood incident that twisted his life. When Father Tim calls on Leeper to apologize for his failure to keep Dooley and Tom away from the construction site, he finds Buck alone and very drunk. Leeper confides that his father was a harsh disciplinarian who expected him to act like a man when he was still a child. Buck took his younger brother for a ride on the tractor and backhoe, and it overturned, killing the brother. Buck's father never forgave him, and he has never...

(This entire section contains 1126 words.)

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forgiven himself. His repressed anger isolates him from other people. He tries to deaden his emotional pain with alcohol, which makes him even more violent. Although Buck Leeper wears emotional armor during most of the book, Father Tim's empathy brings a change of heart. Both men endured childhoods with harsh, overbearing fathers. Leeper later shows kindness to Tommy in the hospital.

A motif in the novel involves female schemers. Edith Mallory, a wealthy widow, owns most of the property in Mitford. Sex-starved, she pursues Father Tim. Emma calls her the big "Whang Do," and Dooley thinks she is an old witch. First, she tries to win Father Tim with "seductive casseroles" and dinner invitations. Then she lures him into her limousine when it is raining and he needs a ride. Later, she tries to win him by donating money to the children's hospital. Nothing works.

Frustrated by Mitford's provincial ways and its "tacky" downtown, Edith decides to evict Percy Mosely, proprietor of the Main Street Grill, and install an exclusive ladies' boutique. She thinks that by eliminating the Grill, she will get even with the men of Mitford. The Grill has been in operation for two generations, and Mitford men meet there daily for breakfast, lunch, and gossip. They desperately try to persuade Edith to change her mind, but she is adamant, right up to moving day. When Father Tim discovers that timbers beneath the Grill are rotten and that the building needs extensive repairs, Edith is forced to cancel her contract with the dress shop people from Florida. She signs a new lease with Percy and leaves in a huff for Spain.

The other scheming woman is Meg Patrick, Father Tim's counterfeit cousin, who arrives unexpectedly on the rectory doorstep. She tells him they met in Ireland and convinces him they are cousins by reciting the Kavanaugh family genealogy. Being a naive and kindly bachelor, Father Tim offers her the guest room', which becomes her lair. She locks the door and for weeks, seldom comes out, except at night. He knows she is in there because she flushes the toilet and pounds the keys of her typewriter in the middle of the night.

Dooley and Puny are not fooled by this skinny redhead whose eyes behind thick lensed glasses look like the "magnified eyes of a house fly." Although she claims to be a vegetarian, she eats everything in the refrigerator and even steals Dooley's candy.

When Meg accidentally drops her key and leaves the house, Puny opens the door and discovers garbage, dirty clothes, and a nasty novel that Meg is writing. Father Tim asks her to leave after he finds his mother's missing amethyst brooch in her room. Later he discovers that cousins in Boston have fallen for the same scam.

Father Tim's naivete about women is an underlying theme throughout the book. His fear of marriage is the cause of his loneliness and conflict. Dooley and Barnabas are good companions, but they do not fill the need that Cynthia has created. Although Father Tim and Cynthia are merely engaged at the end of A Light in the Window, the title foreshadows a marriage.