Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

Gardner’s novels, especially October Light, evince a strong connection between themes and meanings on the one hand and characterizations on the other. The motif of locks and locking provides an example. The novel takes place in October, when “the sudden contradiction of daylight” provides “the first deep-down convincing proof that locking time, and after that winter and deep snow and cold, were coming.” Though still vigorous, the aged Sally and James realize that, like the year’s end, their own end approaches; meanwhile, they are locked in a fierce, potentially lethal conflict. Sally locks her door against James and the rest of the world. Later, through that door, she has an awkward discussion with a visiting Hispanic priest and realizes ironically, “How difficult it was to have a serious conversation through a locked door. There was a lesson in that!”

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On other levels, Gardner shows how characters lock their hearts against one another, often without realizing it. Perhaps unfairly, the priest, Father Hernandez, forces Sally the Yankee Protestant to think of herself for a moment as “one of the colorful minorities.” The unfairness, however, is mutual; Sally is puzzled by what she sees as Hernandez’s attack on her, since “He was a priest. . . . They were supposed to be gentle and understanding.”

Gardner seems to be saying, too, that the locking of hearts and the sudden contraction of mental light (one is reminded of Matthew Arnold’s line, “where ignorant armies clash by night”) are phases in an inevitable cycle of human life, just as they are in nature. In this story and in the subnovel (which forms a sort of counterpoint to the main story), the mechanistic view of the universe has its exponents—willing and unwilling. For example, the subnovel’s hero, Peter Wagner, expresses pity for the “futile, idealistic rejection of the body’s cold mechanisms.”

Are people, then, responsible for their death-dealing prejudices? Metaphysically, the question is never really resolved in this novel, although individual responsibilities are sorted out by the end. James, when he could admit it, has felt responsible for his son Richard’s suicide, but he finally unlocks the mystery of that suicide when he learns that Richard felt responsible for scaring Sally’s husband into a fatal heart attack. Ginny’s son Dickie feels responsible for Sally’s having found the “trashy book” she reads in her room. It emerges that it was James who left the book lying around.

The larger question is: Is one personally responsible for the attitudes, the locking or unlocking of one’s heart, that can make the difference between harmony and strife? Rather than answer this question, Gardner simply shows James unlocking his heart, while his friend Ed Thomas, the dying cardiac patient, movingly evokes another phase of nature’s cycle—the “unlocking time,” that is, the March thaw in New England. The novel does suggest a partial answer simply through the near-juxtaposition of two equally valid but mutually exclusive propositions—a typical Gardner technique. Father Hernandez says, “Stubborn? All human beings are stubborn. It’s the reasons we’re survivors.” On the very next page, Sally remembers her dead husband, Horace, saying: “However much we may hope, we know perfectly well all we have is each other. Pity how we fight and struggle against our own best interests.” One statement’s validity does not cancel the other’s; rather the two shed mutual light.

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