Themes and Meanings
In the silence of the automobile ride, each character undergoes a crisis and then emerges transformed, restored to emotional health by the power of love. Cleotha is healed by her gradual recognition of the beauty in all things living, which she has seen with new eyes on the trip, and in which the spirit of her infant daughter is reflected. Jodey, worried about losing Cleotha’s love because of his partial responsibility for the infant’s death, is comforted at the graveside when he senses that Cleotha is no longer emotionally distant from him and the others. Buddy, like his father, is also made anxious by his apparent loss of rapport with Cleotha but rejoices and regains his sense of security when, on arriving at Weed, she suddenly winks and smiles at him as well as slightly leaning toward him in the car. Finally, Arlene Latcher, who has been unhealthily shunning true emotional contact with others, now abruptly realizes her envy of the emotional ties of the Powers family and bursts into tears when contact is poignantly renewed between mother and son.
Related themes are fruitfulness and life versus barrenness and death, communication versus isolation and alienation, engagement with people and ordinary living versus disengagement, and forgiveness versus guilt. Against the apparent purposelessness and waste of the child’s death amid the wastes of New Mexico and the symbol of their barrenness, the tumbleweed, the story counterposes Cleotha’s awakening sensitivity to the orchards and new spring life all around her, Arlene Latcher’s discovery of the sterility of her detachment from the people and world around her, and Jodey’s absolution from guilt through Cleotha’s love and forgiveness. Just as the cycle of life continues in the seasonal change from winter to spring, which is emphasized in the story, so out of the child’s terrible death the members of the funeral party are reborn psychologically and emotionally. Thus the child’s death and the suffering it has subsequently caused have not been purposeless.