Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Godwin weaves two themes throughout her novel. The first comes in the novel’s epigraph, taken from Carl Jung: “In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination—that is, ultimately limited—we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite. But only then!” Jane Clifford’s search for personal resolution leads her to a deeper awareness of her own character. First Howard Cecil (a student) and later Ray Sparks (her stepfather) ask Jane, “Don’t you want to be happy?” Yet, throughout the novel, what Jane really wants is to solve “the ever-present problem of her unclear, undefined, unresolved self.” Looking for “a true, pure character,’” Jane finds instead her own imagination; Hugo Von Vorst, who she had thought was her Aunt Frances’s natural father, is not the “family villain” she had always believed him to be, and neither is Gabriel Weeks the man of her dreams. It is only near the end of the novel that Jane sees her life as a series of illusions and uncompleted actions, and this self-recognition is the first step in perceiving her own limitations.

Godwin’s second theme concerns time. Jane not only feels the passage of time but also reminds herself of it. Her constant companion is a clock proclaiming Tempus Fugit (time flies), and a watchmaker’s advertisement, “He who knows most, Gives most for wasted time,” recurs in her thoughts. Through most of the novel, Jane is looking for a pattern to hold against time, fearing that she will not find her “best life.” Time is her enemy, and only on the last page of the novel does another way of interpreting time emerge. In a fantasized conversation with the Enema Bandit, Jane advises him to “turn your oddities inside out like a sock and find your own best life by making them work for you instead of being driven by them.” She advises him to make his own pattern, to allow his limitations to shape his “best life.” From this point of view, he who knows most will give most for wasted time because wasted time is, itself, redeemed.