Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Most of the important themes of the novel concern the question of how to cope with overwhelming evil, including ways of escaping from it. One way to escape from it is to commit suicide. When Campbell admits to Resi Noth that he no longer believes love is the only thing to live for, she pleads with him to tell her something else to live for—“anything at all.” Yet he remains silent. She soon commits suicide. When Campbell himself commits suicide, one might wonder whether it is guilt that he feels (he has in any case claimed, “I had taught myself never to feel guilt”) or a kind of paralysis before the absurdity and senselessness of human existence. The novel is obviously, therefore, existentialist in its basic values, though the perception of life as absurd has its roots in the Holocaust.

Campbell makes an excellent speech on the character of evil when he defeats O’Hare—a drunken, ignorant wretch who had imagined that he was “at war with pure evil” and would win it by killing Campbell. Campbell asks him: “Where is evil?” He answers the question himself: “[Evil is] that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. . . . It’s that part of an imbecile . . . that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”