Themes and Meanings
The title of the novel suggests not only the central symbol of the work but also its main theme: “the master” and “the mill.” The mill, as Sam knows, is the central “fact in his life.” The mill literally towers over him and the entire community, and it symbolizes man’s inescapable bond to labor. Man shall “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow,” it is said in the Bible, and Grove, through the symbol of the mill, suggests that mankind, no matter how refined or sophisticated, will always have to deal with hard work. Work is the issue of this novel, and the mill represents man’s need to work to provide his daily bread. (The theme is so important to Grove that he even calls one of his novels Our Daily Bread, 1928).
The concern with daily bread, represented by the mill, relates directly to the term “master.” Shall man master technology—the means of providing that needed bread—or shall technology master man? Grove does not attempt to provide an answer; he is, after all, a novelist, not an economist. Yet Grove emphasizes the need to consider the interrelationship of man’s higher aspiration and his need for the basics of life. Since Grove is a writer of the naturalism school, he emphasizes how man must be realistically seen as a creature who, despite his higher aspirations, cannot be allowed to forget the basics of life. When “masters” such as Sam become too absorbed in ideals and visions, social revolt is the result. The depiction of the workers in the novel, particularly the workers in revolt, shows Grove’s sympathy with the needs of the common man. Sam’s great gifts and moral integrity, however, show that Grove also has much respect for the men capable of building and sustaining the economic and technological structures that make modern life possible. Grove’s dual sympathy reflects his main concern in this novel: He wishes to show how man is a tragic figure caught up in the mills of his own making. Every effort to liberate mankind brings another form of servitude. The suggestion seems to be that no man can ever fully “master” his fate.