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...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)