Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

Although a complex story, “Order of Insects” is unified by a single thematic focus that derives from William H. Gass’s training as a philosopher at Cornell and his career as a teacher of philosophy, primarily at Washington University. The story dramatizes the fundamental dichotomies of the Platonic idealist point of view, with the obvious, easily perceived, apparently real world as actually an insignificant reflection of a deeper, more important reality. The narrator’s seemingly orderly and complete life as a housewife and mother is exposed as insignificant, incomplete, and confused compared to the order and beauty that she finds in the world beyond herself—in the bugs in her carpet. She admits that she once believed that love meant chaos and that life was inherently tumultuous and confusing. Both beliefs are descriptive of her housewife’s life, but the world’s larger reality, epitomized by the bugs, shows her that she could take control of her life, and discover peace and orderliness in all things, if she could devote herself totally to study and appreciation. Thus she could transcend her physical being (false reality) for the life of the mind (true reality of spirit and intellect). She feels like Galileo in her intellectual discoveries but admits that her physical self struggles against the mental joys and tires of the intellectual effort.

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The bugs represent this inverted reality, too: Their bodies, although splendidly intact with the Egyptian permanence of mummies, are presented as only light, empty cases lacking the heaviness—the fundamental realness—of their souls. Similarly, the narrator notes, humans tend to value the temporary, the unreal in others: the external features, comprising muscles, water, and adipose tissue, which are proven least real, least substantial, because of how rapidly they deteriorate. Human bones, more real, last much longer, and the human soul, the least tangible and least obvious,...

(The entire section contains 486 words.)

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