Resuscitation of a Hanged Man Themes
by Denis Johnson

Start Your Free Trial

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Download Resuscitation of a Hanged Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

There are many themes explored in the novel, most connected by biblical and religious references. Johnson’s main point, around which all of Leonard’s actions and discoveries evolve, is to question the purpose of life. For Leonard, the quest for personal redemption brings him to Provincetown and dictates much of what he does in the book. He cannot die until he has justified his life, found some meaning in his actions, and redeemed himself in the eyes of God. As a Catholic whose faith has failed him, however, he is searching for absolutes in a world, Provincetown, where everything is inverted. Men might be men, or they might be women dressed as men; the woman he falls in love with is a lesbian; Ray Sands, a former policeman and keeper of justice, is the head of a paramilitary organization and has three false passports in his desk; even the priest from whom Leonard seeks absolution is gay.

From Leonard’s point of view, the town is both absurd and corrupt. Simple, mundane elements are magnified; he looks for significance where there is none, searching for meaning in external events that mirror his inner confusion. One of Leonard’s first actions on arriving in Provincetown is to go to Mass and seek absolution, but he finds himself unable to make a “committed” confession. He falls instantly in love with Leanna, whom he meets at church. She is “strictly P-town,” yet Leonard pursues her. Perhaps he can redeem her, sexually, and in so doing redeem himself. His obsessive search for Twinbrook also shows how important redemption is to Leonard.

The issue of death, as part of life, is also important. The title for the novel comes from Leonard’s investigation of Twinbrook. Twinbrook was obsessed with an experiment by two doctors in the nineteenth century who attempted to resuscitate a hanged man using electricity. Although the man is brought back to life—his heart beats, he breathes, and he responds to light—he cannot speak. He is alive, but he has not been reborn. A man who cannot speak or hear has no faith and therefore has no life. In this, Johnson questions the restoration of life to the dead and whether such a life is worth living. Leonard cannot articulate his reasons for committing suicide. He did die when he hanged himself, but he has not been reborn, because his assumptions about himself and his church have failed him.

Leonard experiences death on many levels—emotional death, moral death (when he finds himself spying on Leanna and her lover as part of an investigation), the death of his identity, and the death of his assumptions about the world. Johnson shows the thin line between religious fervor and insanity, and how a religious framework can be used to give meaning to seemingly random events. It is a dangerous impulse that can be used to justify the actions of saints and mass murderers alike, as Leonard shows in the end.

The metaphors and imagery in the novel reflect these concerns. Johnson relies on references to the Bible, Christ, and martyrs such as Simone Weil to develop Leonard’s obsession. As Leonard comes to see himself as a Christ figure toward the end of the book, images of crucifixion and light come into play. The last section of the book, entitled “The Last Days,” further echoes the last days of Christ, describing Leonard’s final sense of redemption as he finds comfort and peace in the ordered life of the prison.