A Long and Happy Life Themes
by Reynolds Price

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A Long and Happy Life Themes

(Novels for Students)

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Central to Rosacoke Mustian’s dilemma in this book is the question of whether Wesley Beavers truly loves her. On one hand, his focus when he is home is on her. He escorts her to picnics and drives her places that she needs to go, such as Mildred’s funeral. People kid him about when they are going to be married, and late in the book Sammy Ransom says that he just assumed that they already had plans. Despite their social situation, though, Wesley is distant to Rosacoke in private. He hints at relations with other girls, teasing her with talk of skinny-dipping and dancing with them. (Rosacoke eventually finds out that his hints are probably real when he blurts out another girl’s name during sex.) He does not tell her when he is coming to town or when he is going. He has never asked for a picture of her, and the only one he has is one that she insisted he take. He writes seldom, and only about inconsequential things. When she asks in a letter, “are we in love?” he responds, “You are getting out of my depth now.”

At the same time, Rosacoke is not sure whether what she feels for Wesley is love or not. She has been compelled by him since their first meeting six years earlier, but she does not know why. At one point she thinks of the things that she has kept from their relationship, letters and mementos, as being no more to her than the reminders of her dead father. The book can be read in terms of Rosacoke’s exploration of other relationships—Milo and Sissie, Macey and Marise, Mildred and Sammy, her parents, and even Willie Duke and Heywood Betts— in terms of what they can tell her about love. In the end, she decides to marry Wesley because “After all Wesley knows me,” even though she says that it is the baby, not Wesley, who knows about love.

One of the reasons that Wesley is able to make Rosacoke accept his casual attitude toward their relationship is that she does not know who she is and what she can rightfully expect from life. He, on the other hand, is full of self-confidence. When she asks why he acts as he does, he responds, “Because I am Wesley.” When she is upset with him, Rosacoke has one request of him: “Do me a favor. . . . Say Rosacoke.” She needs Wesley to acknowledge her individuality.

She looks back to her childhood fondly as a time when life was full of adventure, when finding a new area of forest or seeing a deer unexpectedly could open up new possibilities. She is growing up, though, a fact that is highlighted in the novel by the contrast between Rosacoke, who is the kind of person willing to take responsibility for attending her friend’s funeral, and Baby Sister, who, at thirteen, is lost in a fantasy life with her dolls.

But the onset of adulthood is not appealing to her as she looks at the models of adult behavior around her. No one has the sane, kind, and respectful life that Rosacoke wishes for herself. When she finds herself pregnant, she realizes that all of the people around her spend their lives serving their babies or, in the case of Sammy and Mr. Isaac, serving an old man who has reverted to infancy. Her mother, for instance, has nothing good to say about devoting her life to a drunken and abusive man. Macey and Marise Gupton’s lives are overrun with the children they keep producing. Mildred loses her life to childbirth. Milo and Sissie are devastated by the loss of their child. Rosacoke resists all assumptions that she and Wesley will become just another rural couple, that she will be just another of his sexual conquests and then just another young mother. Cradling the infant Frederick in her arms, he reaches out to her as he would to his mother, and she rejects the mother role, telling him, “Frederick, I ain’t who you think I am.”

In the end, though, Rosacoke does assume the identity of...

(The entire section is 1,055 words.)