Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of the story, “Man, Woman and Boy,” starkly presents the subject matter of the story without the father-narrator’s meaning-making imagination. The theme of the story—what the author says about the subject and, therefore, what it means in his life—is precisely what Stephen Dixon demonstrates throughout the story. The reader receives the elements of the story only from the father’s perspective—what he hears, sees, and, most important, remembers. The narrative delineates the process of creativity as the father relentlessly traces, in memory, how all the discrete actions in the story and related incidents in his life come together to formulate the most profoundly meaningful events in the man’s life. By allowing his imagination to follow his memory in its most literal operations, he discovers that his life has been, and continues to be, happy, fulfilling, and rich in spite of the normal domestic difficulties that every family experiences. Whether or not he actually remembers his own parents’ violent battles in the womb memory is beside the point. His imagination shows him that he is capable of becoming like his brutal father, a warning that reinforces his feelings of gratitude for the wonderful wife and sweet son he has.

One of the reasons that Dixon is considered a foremost postmodernist writer in late twentieth century American fiction is his ability to make the mental and psychological processes of the imagination the actual theme of many of his stories, and this story is one of his most impressive accomplishments. There is certainly nothing new in writing about a man, a woman, and a boy in terms of content. Dixon’s fecund imagination, however, transforms a common family story into a reenactment of how the mind probes its own complex processes in creating meaning and, thus, understanding the evolution of the value of family love. Without the imagination’s constant effort to understand and explain to itself the primacy of the value of the family as the center of a civilized community, the man perpetually runs the risk of falling into the chaos and terror of a world of mere natural process. Consciousness of the self as it operates within a specifically human and loving world is both the theme and the process that Dixon brilliantly explores in this unique story.