Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

As the title suggests, Living is about survival, or more precisely, about the continuity of life in an entropic, leveled universe. In the novel, old Dupret dies, Craigan is forced into early retirement, workers move listlessly from factory to factory, and the old men at the foundry labor with increasing...

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As the title suggests, Living is about survival, or more precisely, about the continuity of life in an entropic, leveled universe. In the novel, old Dupret dies, Craigan is forced into early retirement, workers move listlessly from factory to factory, and the old men at the foundry labor with increasing slowness, while the young men talk of escape to Australia and Canada. The picture is one of a dying world in which worsening economic conditions are abetted by inefficient management and a labyrinthine, gossipy bureaucracy. Death itself seems to become part of a tiresome cycle or ritual, as if life were a long period of waiting for yet another ordinary event. Yet within the quotidian, arising out of it, Green depicts surprising instances of light, irony, humor, song, and motion, which might be seen as the resistances to death. For example, in speaking of the dying old Dupret, two factory managers quite unconsciously manage to redeem from cliche and dullness an unacknowledged humorous moment: “’He was a grand fine man,’ Mr. Walters said, ‘a grand man,’ in his dull voice. ’Is ’e as sick as that?’ said Mr. Bridges.” Yet there is birth as well as death in Living: One birth in particular serves as the occasion for a rare intrusion of song into the mundane world of the workers. At the foundry, a Welshman’s celebration of his son’s birth is portrayed in lyrical detail, his “silver voice” disrupting the routine of the “black grimed men,” just as the birth of a child remains an extraordinary event in the most ordinary of worlds.

At the end of the novel, a child is born to Lily Gates’s neighbor, a symbolic event that represents all the irony and ambiguity inherent in a work in which life and survival are not always necessarily equal. To Lily, the child may be seen as a sign of what she may never have; yet, amid a flutter of pigeons and raucous sounds, the infant, simply because it demands a special kind of attention another intrusion into the ordinary becomes a sign of continuance and life. In this scene, as in the novel as a whole, loss (Lily’s loss of Jones, her failure to escape) is countered by a momentary presence, a point of interest represented by the child’s grasping hand as it reaches for a pigeon and the pigeon’s “fierce red eye” as it appears ready to peck at the baby. In Green’s attenuated universe, such moments are charismatic, transforming, and, if only momentarily, redemptive.

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