Machine Dreams Themes
by Jayne Anne Phillips

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Machine Dreams Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While Machine Dreams certainly could not be considered a war novel in the usual sense, World War II and the Vietnam war frame this novel as the actual wars marked the boundaries of an era in American life. Just as World War II was the defining event of Mitch Hampson's generation, so Vietnam was for his son's. As Phillips clearly demonstrates, however, these two wars were vastly different. Mitch, who sees the distinctions only belatedly, expresses the attitude that military service is Billy's patriotic duty. Danner, Mitch's daughter, does not consider the war justified; her attitude is that of the draft resisters. On the other hand, Billy, like many of the war's combatants, believes any discussion of the war is futile; Vietnam is simply his fate. By allowing each point of view to be presented by the character in his or her narrative, Phillips defines the issue and presents all the attitudes more or less objectively.

The Vietnam war is the largest issue Billy faces, but for Danner the corresponding issue is marijuana use. Again the generational discrepancy is clearly portrayed. In the World War II generation of Reb, Mitch, and Clayton, the drug of choice is alcohol. Mitch may warn Reb against letting Clayton drink too much, but consumption of alcohol is not illegal. Thus, Mitch becomes very angry with Danner when she is arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana, and he is even more upset that neither Danner nor Billy seems to take her crime very seriously. Once again, Phillips provides a snapshot of the 1960s generation; her characters express both points of view, but she makes no judgment.

Phillips's primary theme is lack of communication and its effects upon the people involved. The pattern begins with Gracie and J. T. Danner, who shout at each other through locked doors but never actually talk to each other. Their conflict is a secret their daughter Jean tries to keep, and she repeats their failure with her own husband, Mitch, who also does not really talk with the people he loves. Raised in a family whose secrets have led him to feel rejected by both parents, he seems to communicate with Bess and Katie Sue; he writes many letters, but he carefully avoids telling them anything he thinks will upset them. With his wife and children, he is actually brusque at times, expecting them to accept his statements without question.

In the larger world, lack of communication is even more directly related to secrecy, as Danner and Mitch discover when they try to obtain information about Billy. Danner receives a letter from one of her brother's army buddies, who describes the circumstances when Billy was shot down. The army refuses to give either Danner or Mitch any...

(The entire section is 693 words.)