Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central theme of the novel is spiritual death and rebirth. Theodosia seems to be unwittingly forced to pursue a via negativa, stripped of everything that she has—her family, social position, wealth, mental and physical health, and, finally, her will to live—before she can discover who she truly is, and the inexorable life force can reclaim her. That this was Roberts’s intention is clear from her papers, in which she describes the novel as a process of “continual subtraction,” her method consisting of “a steady taking away until there was nothing left but the bare breath of the throat and the simplified spirit.”

The central recurring symbol is that of music. Theodosia’s constant endeavors to improve her skill with the violin are symbolic of her search for her true self. Music, she is told by her teacher, “must come out of your soul,” and Theodosia longs to “play the fiddle to the end of the earth . . . to go to the end of music and look over the edge at what’s on the other side.” Music embodies the perfection and harmony that she seeks. It occurs at crucial points in the narrative as a faintly heard counterpoint to the more overt discord and suffering. It gives Theodosia’s exchanges with Americy and Lethe much of their poignant sadness, for example, acting as a haunting reminder of the contrast between the ideal and the actual. At the very brink of Theodosia’s intended suicide, the ideal seems lost altogether,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)