Themes and Characters

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John Conlan's father and mother, whom he has dubbed Bore and Hyper respectively, are more than forty years older than John. His mother is a compulsive cleaner, while his father, a former alcoholic with heart trouble, wants John to join him and John's older brother Ken at the Exchange. The Conlans appear worn out as parents and irritated by John's youthful imagination, and they wish he were grown up and out of the house. John, meanwhile, does his best to justify this irritation. John's ambition to become an actor does not meet with his parents' approval, and his flamboyance contrasts with his parents' conformity.

Lorraine Jensen's mother, a nurse who specializes in the care of dying cancer patients, steals from the families she helps and has a morbid fear of men, probably because her former husband abandoned her several years earlier. Lorraine's insecurities stem from Mrs. Jensen's constant nagging and devastating remarks about Lorraine's appearance. Lorraine's interest in writing and psychology arises from an attempt to understand her mother and her own situation.

Norton Kelly, another important character, is John and Lorraine's age. He enjoys thievery and inflicting cruelty on others, probably because he feels rejected himself. Norton and John are both outsiders, but they hate each other. Norton wants to steal from Mr. Pignati and hopes to use John as an informer against the old man. Norton's anger over not being invited to the party at Mr. Pignati's house and his envy of John and Lorraine result in the destruction of Mr. Pignati's pig collection. This act, more than the other destruction caused by the party, damages John and Lorraine's relationship with Mr. Pignati, for Norton destroys the symbol of Mr. Pignati's love for his deceased wife.

Angelo Pignati, a retired widower, is at once a parent and a child to Lorraine and John. He enjoys their company as if he were their child and is eager to roller skate, play games, and tell jokes. At the same time, he substitutes as a parent, opening his home to Lorraine and John and giving them treats their parents deny them. More important, Mr. Pignati trusts them, and he forgives them after the disastrous party.

Mr. Pignati's dual role as parent and child suggests the idea of alienation between adults and children that John voices in his closing narration at the zoo. John realizes that people must choose between the role of parent or child, because the middle ground is extremely precarious. Mr. Pignati trespasses on the role of child and pays with his life; John and Lorraine trespass as well, sidestepping adult responsibility with their careless, childish actions. Thus the child in them dies with Mr. Pignati; they realize that they must assume blame for Mr. Pignati's death, and that it is no longer possible for them to deny responsibility for their own actions. The grim implication of this reality is that Lorraine, John, and Mr. Pignati's best moments occur when all are lying. Eventually, truths start to emerge, despite the characters' efforts to avoid them, and the consequences are all the more painful because these truths have been suppressed for so long.

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