Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The central theme of Maker of Saints is Davis’s emerging definition of the artist in a tumultuous world of sudden, complicated violence. Indeed, Bird watches television news coverage of natural disasters, terrorism, and war. The artist within such a world cannot be content with simplifications and certainties. Davis divides the narrative into three sections: “Static,” “Color Bars,” and “Image.” The titles evoke the progression of a television screen from noise to a meaningful picture. For a contemporary artist, however, clarity of vision involves acknowledging the murkiness of behavior; insight is not the same as clear sight. It is this epiphany that finally frees Bird to return to her art.

The novel draws on many religious systems—Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Voodoo. Davis, not endorsing the doctrine of any single faith, uses this multiplicity of belief systems to compel readers to acknowledge the human capacity to be stunned into mystery, to accept a world that defies rather than concedes explanation. The closing chapter, similarly, provides a harrowing account of Alex’s last moments, but one entirely conjured by Bird’s rejuvenated imagination without definitive proof. By skewering the conventions of detective fiction and leaving the question of the murderer’s identity subject to conjecture, Davis makes ironic the need for solution. It is the risk of simplification that Davis, as artist, disparages. Bird recalls her twenties, when she saw the world as a carnival palace full of dazzling surprises. In the wake of her abandoned career and the death of Alex, however, the world has become more like Edgar Allan Poe’s castle in “The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy” (1842; better known as “The Masque of the Red Death,” 1845). Bird must reject both of these models of the world as simplifications. The world is neither magical nor doomed; rather, it is an intricate mix of both.