Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Joseph Blotner observes that The Middle of the Journey is about varying degrees of engagement and disillusionment with the world. On both the personal and political level, characters assume stances that either impede or facilitate their participation in human affairs. At one extreme, Duck Caldwell lives for himself; his individuality is built upon excluding the rights of others. At the other extreme, Gifford Maxim cannot survive unless he puts his trust in certain friends and in abiding religious principles. He is disillusioned because he has put so much faith in the Party, but he is remarkable for his passion in arguing for his friends’ assistance.

In between Caldwell and Maxim, the Crooms waver. On the one hand, they are under the illusion that Maxim has been successfully working for world liberation—for the working class they mistakenly presume Caldwell exemplifies. In a sense, the Crooms have left Maxim and Caldwell—and other types like them—to do the work of the world for them. As a result, they angrily reject Maxim’s home truths and shrink from fully confronting Caldwell’s violence, since accepting the brutality of either man would shatter their worldview.

Laskell is a man whose view of himself and of the world has already been shattered before Maxim first confides to him his loss of faith. Both men, indeed, go through a kind of rebirth in the novel, a painful rebuilding of their lives on new bases that rest upon a deep awareness of past failures. Laskell knows that he never fully committed himself to his dead fiancée; Maxim realizes that he committed himself all too securely to an ideology. Each man is truly in “the middle of the journey,” in a middle age that calls for a reassessment of all that he has been and hopes to become.