Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Pictures from an Institution is an unconventional realistic novel. Jarrell immediately signals his intent to give his novel the form of a musical composition, as its title is a reference to the composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures from an Exhibition. There are, incidentally, literal “pictures from an exhibition” in the penultimate chapter, “Art Night.” Jarrell also slyly plays with the connotations of “institution.” Benton College is, of course, an institution, but in common parlance the term is often used as a euphemism for a prison, reformatory, or madhouse. The novel is subtitled A Comedy, and it is a very biting comedy.

Jarrell was a professor of English all of his adult life, with the exception of his wartime service in the Army Air Corps. He taught in the Midwest, the East, and the South at both private and public colleges and universities. The main purpose of Pictures from an Institution is to satirize the complacency found at colleges such as Benton, where an education simultaneously insular and “progressive” is sold, at very high prices, to the parents of overprivileged young women. An examination of the usual goings on at Benton allows the author to attack a number of secondary targets as well.

Jarrell was erudite in the fields of music and painting as well as literature. He uses the music various characters favor to comment upon their sense of aesthetics. One art...

(The entire section is 401 words.)