Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062
The overarching theme in Panama is change, or the tension between past and future, in a man's life and loves, and in the world around him. Concern about the future cannot be separated either from the boy-meets-girl theme or from the study of the evolution of architecture as a metaphoric structure for understanding change in the modern world.
In The Education of Henry Adams, Adams says, "Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit." Zencey likely intended to reflect Adams's view in depicting the tension between the chaos of the future and the order of habit. In Panama, Adams, mired in habit, feels "outpaced by a world that seemed no longer to need his kind." His observations prove that he is mystified by the trappings of the early industrial age. He observes a cobbler's shop with
boots . . . dozens and dozens of boots on display in the window, enough to have been, just a few decades ago, a sure sign of the cobbler's dementia, but unremarkable in a world where shoes were made in advance of orders, on speculation, in standard sizes, before any need.
He sees that the stores sell goods different from the ones sold only ten years before, listing such novelties as the "[t]elegraph [and] [f]lavored ices." He finds such rapidly changing times uncomfortable, "less artistic." He tells John Hay, "there's a time toward the end of a man's life when all he wants is for the world to stay the same."
The loss of his wife, his decision not to pursue a life in politics (in his family's tradition), and perhaps even his function as a historian, cause Adams to become wistful at the transformation in the world around him. He realizes that progress does not always bring the best for the world and that remaining in the safety of the past is futile. The world cannot remain the way it was when his wife, Clover, was alive, but perhaps for Henry Adams accepting the changes around him will mean accepting his wife's death.
Lost without his wife, Adams calls the present his "posthumous life." He would like nothing better than to return to the time he spent happily with Clover; life without her is like a living death. Elizabeth Cameron hints to him romantically about what a man "needs for the second half of his life"— meaning perhaps herself—but Adams replies that it "depends . . . on whether the second half [will make] a departure from the first." He seems to be "a man who intends his life to stay the same." Nevertheless, he fatefully meets Miriam Talbott and in a twist of the classic boy-meets-girl theme finds himself attracted to Miriam (whose name he at first confuses with Marian, Clover's real name). In fact, Adams is attracted enough to endanger himself to find her when he learns she is imperiled.
The loss of Clover makes Adams's search for Miriam all the more intense. When he realizes that Clover's death "had taught him that the lesson of light and the tragedy of its eclipse grew no more palatable with recognition," he becomes aware that Miriam has become his "light" and that her disappearance is another "eclipse." Part of Miriam's appeal is her youth. Her "modern dress . . . strange to him" represents the modern age in which Adams feels so uncomfortable. The notion that the two of them could be "perfect and complete" is comforting to Adams. Maybe, by letting go of Clover and by holding onto Miriam, Adams will find a way to be "of use" in the modern age that so concerns him.
Yet another theme in Panama involves the use of architecture as a metaphor for understanding the changes of modern life. From the beginning of the story, Adams muses on the architecture he sees around him. When he meets Miriam Talbott, they travel to Chartres, where she tells the story of two competing patrons who paid the glaziers to "represent [their] political doctrines" in constructing the stained glass windows of the cathedral. Rather than arguing verbally, they argued through the artistic design of the stained glass they commissioned. Adams begins to read about twelfth-century life, and as the plot moves forward, he becomes more aware of the incipience of progress in that long ago time. He views Notre Dame and reflects that "[m]aybe every church stands as a symbol for something in the lives of those who live within its purview." When he realizes that architecture represents the changes and tensions of the culture around it, he begins to understand modern life not as some dramatic change that has just occurred but rather as a process that occurs over a long period of time.
Adams later convinces himself, "the curve of change ran down from twelfth-century architecture to pass right through nineteenth century biography." His re-awakening from his "posthumous life" comes when he recognizes that electricity, the telegraph, even fingerprints are not the results of the industrial age changes he has observed, but rather the consequence of a series of transformations that began hundreds of years before. At the end of Panama, we see Henry Adams searching for his pen, beginning to write his real-life book about the cathedrals, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.
Adams resolves his interest in Louise Martin, who he met as Miriam Talbott, when he realizes upon finding her that his search "had been as much an escape as it had been a thing worth undertaking itself." Later, he apologizes to Elizabeth Cameron for behaving "abominably" and ignoring her. She tells him that they might have "improved upon the merely acceptable," or deepened their friendship romantically, if he had taken the opportunity. But knowing that will never be, Elizabeth chastises him for pining for his wife, Clover. "[L]et me tell you, Henry Adams, life with a real woman . . . is more difficult. It would change you, make no mistake. Think you wouldn't have changed if Clover had lived?" In this way also, Adams is forced to face the inevitability of change. Gone is his fascination with the youthful Louise Martin. He has chosen instead to "remain lifelong friends" with Elizabeth Cameron. Thus the boy-meets-girl and tension of progress themes collide and are resolved. And the metaphoric structure of the architecture he has observed around him becomes the structure he will use to give order to his life, his next project, his future.
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