Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
The Oldest Living Graduate is a play about the effects of time: the change it brings and the way the past intrudes into the present. Even the plot’s father-son conflict is related to this theme. Floyd wants to turn his back on the past, to transform the land where he lives. This desire stems largely from his need to avenge a past that he cannot escape. Always he has been measured against his elder brother, who is forever secure from failure because he is dead and consequently never to be equaled. Floyd is begging for his father to recognize his younger son in Floyd’s own right, not in comparison to the dead brother. At the same time, Floyd is trying to assert his real role as the family’s benefactor, preferably by having Colonel Kinkaid acknowledge that he has been the one to hold their properties together for seventeen years, but if necessary by certifying that the old man is senile and incompetent. It is thus important to the colonel’s own character development that he presents the Genet farm to Floyd without knowing that it is no longer his to give away.
Few of the colonel’s memories are romantic ones. He does reminisce with gusto about his career with General John Pershing in the Philippines and especially in Mexico. None of these military exploits performed in the grand old style, however, had prepared him for the realities of trench warfare in France. That experience broke the colonel’s spirit, leaving him a shell of a man. Thus, he is fighting to preserve the few romantic memories that he does have. For this reason he refuses to let the Genet farm be disturbed. As he says, “That’s important to an old feller like me, havin’ places that stay the same for rememberin’ on.” His first love retains its romantic glow as long as he can keep the place inviolate, for then he can keep the memory inviolate. It is significant that Colonel Kinkaid explains the farm’s importance to Mike, who more than anyone else in the play stands for the enduring values of the past. At the end of the play the colonel is forced to acknowledge that a person cannot stem change: “The things ah seen and remember in this country is all gone now. Even the sounds of things is gone.” The very title of the play suggests the inevitability of time’s progress. The colonel is the oldest living graduate, but many died to leave him in that position, and soon he will join them: He will be “graduated,” to another plane and will leave another to inherit the title.