Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

Beneath the dark comedy of Neighbors, there is an undercurrent of tragic irony, particularly since the novel ends with Keese's fatal heart attack (his neighbors have literally persecuted him to death). As a middle-aged and prosperous suburban householder, Keese has tried to insulate himself against the more unpleasant realities of American life. Yet this mild mannered conformist is an archetypal victim who must confront the same indignities that others face. In this respect, Keese resembles the Everyman figures of some celebrated European literary works, like Ivan Ilych in Leo Tolstoy's novelette, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," or Joseph K. in Franz Kafka's The Trial(1925; see separate entry). Like those predecessors, Keese finds himself the target of implacable fates in the persons of Harry, Ramona, and the Greavys, who seem determined to make Keese pay for his lifelong attempt to avoid anguish and suffering.

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At times, however, Berger's irony is double-edged, for Keese, the victim, sometimes becomes the aggressor in his response to Harry and Ramona. But Keese's acts of aggression seem to produce more guilt for Keese than harm to his tormentors, who appear impervious, like the specters of nightmare. In the final scene, at any rate, Keese's anguish is handled compassionately, when Harry and Ramona return to be companions in the ambulance after his heart attack. (No doubt their appearance is an hallucination brought on by his illness, but that only heightens the aesthetic effect of their presence.)

It is clear that one major theme of the novel is the need for Keese to recognize the emptiness of his highly conventional middle-class life, which he has constructed as a defense against the moral nihilism of outsiders and the threat of mortality. In presenting this theme, Berger has skillfully adapted the vision of Kafka's novels and the absurdist drama to an American setting. As Harry and Ramona destroy Keese's carefully maintained sense of order, they make him aware of the existential anguish of living, confronted by irrational events and happenings that no human being can control.

Both Harry and Ramona, and the chaos they bring in their wake appear to be the embodiment of a capricious fate or a series of random accidents no reasonable divinity might permit. With his defense of civility and common sense demolished by their persistent intrusions into his life and their readiness to tell any lie convenient to the moment, Keese is forced to confront the emptiness of his own existence. With common sense assumptions about human behavior destroyed on the final day of his life, Keese must face the challenge of the daunting fact of daily living and its irrational mystery. In this regard, the novel follows in the tradition of existentialist and absurdist fiction, which systematically strip away the illusions fostered by social life to depict human life as a bitter and relentless struggle for understanding, as in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, (1952) where humanity is reduced to two Chaplinesque figures waiting hopelessly in a vast wasteland.

However, the novel has a secondary theme, which is a satirical view of American contemporary social behavior. In this sense, Harry and Ramona are caricatures of American "bad manners": their behavior offers conventional camaraderie and the spirit of "good fellows together" as a mask for the absence of obligations owed to tradition and the claims of morality. While exuding ready familiarity and bonhomie, Harry and Ramona are ready to violate every social taboo, from Harry's prying into one's bank balance to Ramona's offering easy infidelity within Keese's own house. Moreover, they refuse to take note when they have worn out their welcome.

In the end, it is not surprising to learn that they never owned the neighboring house at all but were merely posing as the new owners. They are shameless social parasites whose actions constantly threaten destruction of the unspoken conventions that allow human beings to associate together within the bounds of civility. But if Harry and Ramona are comic monsters, their behavior also frequently offers a realistic parallel to contemporary failings in manners.

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