One of Wolfe’s great themes is loss. Grover himself is lost, first in the candy store in a situation he cannot handle, then lost in time and to his family in a deeper, irrevocable sense, through his death. His mother, too, in a way, is lost in the past, perhaps the only way she can still be with the son she loves so much, although possibly to the detriment of her living children. Helen is lost in confusion, desperately seeking an explanation for an unanswerable situation, the loss of something precious—a past that she remembers as happy. Sick with guilt, she still blames herself for Grover’s death. Only Eugene, who lost his brother so long ago, briefly finds him again and is left with a fuller awareness of transience, mutability, and the loss of illusions.
In addition, Wolfe’s world seems to overflow with the paradox of time. Time is arrested; time passes, yet remains always. The past and present coexist, as they do in the St. Louis house and in the lives of all the characters. Nothing, yet everything, changes.
Consequently, each character is deeply affected by time and change. Grover wants to believe that time remains in stasis in the courthouse square but is forced to recognize that it does not, and as a result, his perception of the world is subtly and disturbingly altered. To his mother, nothing is the same now, so she chooses to live in the familiar past rather than in the present. In Helen’s voice, there is always a note of deep regret. Life has not brought her what she expected, and she does not understand why. Bewildered and struggling to express herself, she begs college-educated Eugene to explain to her why their lives have turned out as they have. Finally, through his visit to the St. Louis house, Eugene is briefly able to recapture the memory of his forgotten brother and accept the changes that time has brought.