Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The silent artist Gordon is uniquely sensitive to the sterility of talk, and he gives expression, through the mediation of the narrator, to the novel’s dominant theme: “Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words. It seemed endless, as though it might go on forever. Ideas, thoughts, became mere sounds to be bandied about until they were dead.” The sexual contrast between the effeminate Talliaferro and the masculine Gordon is an extension of this theme onto the level of characterization.

More generally, words, in their annoying persistence, are an enervating force, and as such, they have much in common with the novel’s ubiquitous mosquitoes. Though serving at times as a realistic correction of romantic ideals, as in Pat’s abortive journey with David, mosquitoes are more commonly associated with all that is ignoble and deflated, all that is opposed to desire. Distracting and invasive mosquitoes, like empty talk, and like Talliaferro’s interruption of the artist at his typewriter, become the enemies of art, continually breaking in on “the heart’s beautitude,” the artist’s private world of value and potency. Like mosquitoes, the crowd aboard the Nausikaa, and by extension, all such superficial artistic milieus, represent parasitic forces which the true artist must evade.

Opposed to the novel’s portrait of a slightly inimical social and natural reality are a series of formulations of the artist’s private inner world. The artist’s withdrawal into this private world is a way of evading “mosquitoes,” and a necessary prelude to an engagement with a more fundamental reality. The sources of truly powerful and universal art are, in a seeming paradox, private and inward. This theme is developed most fully in the “nighttown” scene, here by Julius Kauffman: “Dante invented Beatrice, creating himself a maid that life had not had time to create, and laid upon her frail and unbowed shoulders the whole burden of man’s history of his impossible heart’s desire.” Gordon’s Beatrice is “the headless, armless, legless torso of a girl, motionless and virginal and passionately eternal,” the sculpture in his studio of which Pat is a living incarnation. The artist seeks to capture in such images what Fairchild calls an “instant of timeless beautitude,” “a kind of splendid and timeless beauty” wherein the artist’s engagement with reality achieves powerful artistic expression.