Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752

Healing, both physical and emotional, is the dominant theme of the novel, as characters confront their own mortality, both in body and in spirit. The tumor in Molly's brain has a parallel in the emotional wound created by the death of her husband, Paul, a death made doubly hurtful by...

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Healing, both physical and emotional, is the dominant theme of the novel, as characters confront their own mortality, both in body and in spirit. The tumor in Molly's brain has a parallel in the emotional wound created by the death of her husband, Paul, a death made doubly hurtful by the fact that the two had decided to separate only shortly before. Cancer becomes a metaphor for a kind of unfocused doom which has become endemic to the modern landscape, ultimately affecting not only Molly, but the great Sandy Sanderson himself, whose prostate cancer also brings him to a new awareness of mortality, subverting the "mad male pride" which keep doctors above the realm of disease and fear they try to govern. As Susan Sontag points out in her ground-breaking essay "Illness as Metaphor," cancer has become a signifier for many kinds of social and psychological diseases, as was tuberculosis in the nineteenth century. There is even a dominant cultural myth suggesting that certain kinds of people—anxious, repressed worriers—are more vulnerable to cancer, and that cancer itself is to some degree a psychological affliction.

The other modern disease in Medicine Men is alcoholism. Drinking is a prevalent pastime and topic of conversation, and most of the characters are or have been heavy drinkers. Most families have a history of alcoholism—both Molly's parents and Henry Starck's are alcoholics—and the alcoholic marriage is a common motif. Alcoholic wives are particularly common, and both Sandy's wife Connie and Dr. Mark Stinger's wife, Jane, are AA members in recovery. The alcoholism motif mirrors the total loss of personal agency and sense of self experienced in cancer, while healing for both is present in recovery. Addiction itself is a metaphor, since even those seemingly above common dependency, the doctors, are addicted to power and control, self-absorbed and insensitive to others.

The counterbalance to the destructive effects of uncaring institutions and domineering doctors is Adams's most familiar life-affirming theme of friendship. Concern and sharing between individuals is essential for healthy emotional, and even physical lives. Molly and Felicia talk every day, bring one another soup, and rescue one another from horrible hospitals. Friendship itself is a healing agent in this novel, as Molly "heard an inner voice that urged her toward Felicia. She would find Felicia out in her garden, she knew she would, and they could just sit out there for a while and talk." Molly imagines she and Felicia extending this healing power to "homeless people, men and women, children, anyone" by establishing a "warm bright clean new shelter." Conversation, food, and friendship are all celebrated. Sandy, on the other hand, hates and fears "women's conversations," along with cats and female intuition. Friendship is extended to a particular kind of sympathetic romantic love, as those recovering from alcoholism or ruined marriages find new, more supportive, accepting relationships, as do Connie and Molly's first husband Henry, and even Jane Stinger and Molly's Dr. Jacobs.

One of Adams's overriding concerns in all her books is people's need to connect with others, to assume a broad focus which takes the periphery into account. Doctors are criticized because of their obtuseness, their self-focusing, which comes in large part from their tendency to distrust feelings and intuitions, to make a fetish of their own specializations and special niche in society. Unable to make connections or to see through others' eyes, they are cut off from real life and experience. The need to connect brings unlikely people into proximity—Connie and Molly's first husband, Henry, and later Felicia and Paul's brother, Matthew who, unlike Paul, is modest and shy, not exciting or dangerous, but who escapes the doctor's disease of tediousness because of his unassuming nature, his ability to unobtrusively make himself part of the present, and his not needing to control others.

Sex, along with food and flowers, is a major topic in the novel because sexuality can be either destructive or restorative depending on how it is used. Although some characters who use sexuality to dominate and overpower others regard themselves as tremendously sexual, as Sandy does, it is usually the women who respond most fervently, even initiating many sexual encounters. Felicia Flood is, of course, an icon of exuberant fertility, as her wonderful cuisine and fruitful garden show, but even proper Connie Sanderson was a tremendously sexual being before Sandy's influence drained her of all feeling. Sexuality is an expression of connection, sharing, humanness, and healing, as well as of physical joy, for the characters.

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