Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mark Helprin frequently uses the circumstances of love and war in his writings, both in his short stories and in his novels. “The Pacific” combines those two primordial themes. Sometimes Helprin writes of actual fighting, but often his stories are concerned less with the physical act of war than about the effects of war on both soldiers and noncombatants. For example, in the short story “Martin Bayer,” set in 1916, the future death and destruction of war are glimpsed by a young boy in the midst of an engagement celebration. In “A Room of Frail Dancers,” an Israeli soldier, after the battles have ended and on the eve of his sailing to Europe, commits suicide.

“The Pacific” is a war story whose protagonist, Paulette, lives in a small town on the peaceful California coast, thousands of miles from the scenes of battle, but war infuses the story: Her husband Lee is fighting the Japanese, Paulette works in a defense factory that produces war materials, and she is living in the small coastal town so as to be as near to him and battle as the sea and air allow. It is her war, not just Lee’s, and it has become her complete life: working twice as fast as anyone else on the assembly line and forcing herself to remain awake in the morning light as a sentinel because of her love for Lee and her hope for their future when the war is over and Lee returns—if he returns.

Light is a theme of many of Helprin’s stories, including “The...

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