At Play in the Fields of the Lord Themes
by Peter Matthiessen

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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Many of the novel’s initial reviewers noted its similarities to the works of Joseph Conrad. It seemed to echo Nostromo (1904) and Heart of Darkness (1902) in its evocation of the encounter between white Europeans and primitive societies or hostile environments. Certainly there is something Conradian about the dark atmosphere of the book, its depiction of a gloomy, sullen landscape inhabited by moral wretches. Les, Quarrier, Andy, Xantes, and Guzmán are Conradian characters whose glimpses into the dark jungle are glimpses—for the reader if not for themselves—into the dark world of their own hearts.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord goes beyond Conrad, however, in its presentation of the Niaruna and in its character of Moon. The Niaruna are presented with an anthropologist’s goal of objectivity and a naturalist’s instinct for appreciation more than with a novelist’s eye toward symbolism. Though primitive, the Niaruna are clearly superior to the societies (the town, faraway North America) which Guzmán, the Hubens, and the Quarriers represent. The Niaruna are not ideal: Pindi, after she bears twins, buries the female so that the male will have a better chance of survival. At the same time, however, the Niaruna lack the imperialistic impulses of the Commandante as well as the equally imperialistic religious vision of the missionaries.

Though the novel could be read as an attack on the cultural egotism of missionary work, its central theme is the irreconcilable nature of the cultures which fatally interact. The worlds of the Niaruna and of the intruders are immediately separated by language (the missionaries never do learn much of Niaruna speech) and geography. More important, they are separated by ethics, theology, and morality. Most important, they look across a gulf of thinking and feeling. The oneness with nature that Moon experiences at the conclusion is not a philosophical insight but an immersion in a way of being. Symbolically Moon is alone: Even if he had sympathetic company, he could no more explain how he feels as an Indian than he could explain aerodynamics to Aeore, challenger of planes.

The thematic function of the influenza which kills Boronai and infects the tribe (with apparent fatal effects past the time of the novel) is to express this unbridgeable gap. Ironically, the influenza was carried to the tribe by Moon, the man most eager to help. He in turn caught it from Andy, the missionary who meant no one harm. Even biology seems determined to oppose intermeshing the primitive and the civilized.

Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord combines several ideas Matthiessen had explored in his earlier novels — the ambiguous nature of political commitment in Partisans (1955), for example, and the quest for human recognition and belonging in Raditzer (1961) — reworked into a complex and intriguing totality. The novel tells the story of the Martin Quarrier family's abortive missionary expedition to the Niaruna Indians in the Peruvian wilderness. Through the dissolution of this mission, and of the ideals that had impelled it, Matthiessen presents a powerful indictment of smug, hypocritical proselytizers, and of the pretensions to cultural superiority that underlie the white man's burden. But Matthiessen extends his project beyond the boundaries of a mere sociological treatise: As the social constraints bolstering the characters gradually dissolve in the heat of the South American jungle, the focus of the novel shifts from an analysis of cultural relativity to one of personal identity in relation to...

(The entire section is 887 words.)