Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741

Says Paulsen, "Now and then, with great rarity, there came a blending of steel and wood and brass and a man's knowledge into one rifle, when it all came together just . . . exactly . . . right and a weapon of such beauty and accuracy was born that it might be actually worshipped." Such a blending occurs at the hands of middle-aged Cornish McManus, who after many years of working for another man, has established his own gun shop and has begun to prosper.

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Paulsen notes, "The truth is that Cornish was an artist, pure and simple; he was that perfect blending of artistic thinking and force of hand that it took to make a sweet rifle." A "sweet rifle" is one that shoots with extraordinary accuracy. In making his special rifle, McManus has some good luck, but mostly he makes good decisions based on his years of experience making rifles.

McManus is an appealing figure. His great care in crafting his rifle is like the care of an artist working on his masterpiece. He is also an innocent, absorbed more in the art than its consequences. In fact, "He [McManus] was oddly—considering how much he loved firearms—a bad shot." When he is finished, he has created a flintlock rifle of incredible accuracy, even at long range. It is a masterpiece that will long outlive him.

McManus' tragic death is but one associated with the rifle. He sells it to John Byam: "More than many men, John lived because of his rifle. He was a young man, unsettled and given to running the ridges and country of the west—into western Pennsylvania and even beyond. He did not speak much, wore buckskins that smelled of wood smoke and deer blood, and walked in moccasins so worn his feet could nearly be seen through them." If McManus is an artist with "force of hand," then Byam is a poet. He fires the rifle: "'Sweet,' Byam said, nodding. 'Like honey from a tree after a long, dead winter.'" Not long thereafter, "the British had found Cornish, decided he was a traitor to the Crown and making rifles for the Revolution, and made Clara a widow by hanging him to the tree outside his gun shop."

Byam fares little better. He serves the Revolution's cause as a brilliant sharpshooter, an extraordinary blend of rifle and shooter, but many colonial fighters died of disease, and he is no exception, dying in a tent. Sarah, who works in the tent hides his gun from soldiers who come asking for it, intending it for her sons—but they are killed in action. She puts the gun in her attic and "within the year she died—it was said of a broken heart." By now the rifle is steeped in death; death is the unifying theme of The Rifle. The dead include five Americans and numberless British soldiers.

When the gun is rediscovered, the mother of the household, the time now being 1993, seems to recognize the rifle for what it is. Others may worship such a masterpiece, but she insists it be removed from her house. In light of later events, she chooses wisely, because the rifle has death waiting within it.

The people who possess the rifle in the 1990s do not seem to measure up to their counterparts from the 1700s. McManus was brilliant, an artist of supreme skill. Byam was a man who knew right from wrong and sacrificed his life for other Americans. The dealers who trade in the rifle seem stupid, unaware of the value of the rifle. Then Tim Harrow gets his hands on it.

"He [Harrow] was thin with a slight gut from drinking beer, and he ate, smelled, and lived for guns" and "Staggering amounts of information concerning weapons and their use swirled through his [Harrow's] head, and with it there were certain aspects of the Constitution and history and a large measure of Christ and Christianity as he thought of it so that it all rolled into one philosophy in some way he could not define but knew, was absolutely certain, was the only right way to view things." Harrow is a man of conviction, but he has little understanding of his convictions. Unlike Byam, he cannot hope to understand the sweetness of the rifle. Harrow "lived entirely on the move," avoiding paying taxes by trading in cash, and always suspicious of the government. When he hears the news that in Waco "a large religious encampment in Texas had been raided and burned and all the people killed in the action," he draws no inferences about the relationship of their weapons to their deaths.

Harvey Kline, "Harv" to his neighbors, seems to be another innocent, unaware of the rifle's potential. In fact, he is more interested in the painting on black velvet of Elvis Presley on a horse than he is in the rifle, although he places both over his mantel at home.

The life of the rifle has been an interesting one, passing through the hands of very different people, most of whom know nothing of its sweetness. Paulsen ties the life of the rifle to another life, that of Richard Allen Mesington. "It is necessary to know this boy," says Paulsen, and if the climax of the novel is to be appreciated, the boy must be understood. Introduced to his audience at age fourteen in Missouri, his life is reviewed. He is an introverted child, and lives in Colorado before moving to Missouri, and he is deeply attached to his dog: "He began to think of the dog in those days and sometimes, even until he was four, if he was in the yard and smelled a new odor or one that might be from a good taste, he would stop and turn his head to catch the smell on the wind the way a dog does it, trying to see in the direction of the odor, using the smell like a beacon." These details and others, such as his playing with model airplanes, are meant to give him individuality. He is not meant to be just any boy, he is meant to be someone set apart, a full human being unique in the combination of his parts.

Although Richard is the focus of the section titled "The Boy," his parents are given their own special traits. Dennis is a bit wayward, but capable of deep love. Peggy is especially well drawn: "She [Peggy] was thin and had a spray of freckles across her nose and straight brown hair that hung down alongside her face, and Richard's tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth whenever she was near." There can be little doubt that Richard is a product of their love and is in his turn loved by them.

The theme of death hangs heavy over the third and final movement of The Rifle, "The Joining." Paulsen says that it was odd that "not once in the life of the rifle, did anybody ever think to check to see if it was loaded." He asserts that "often it is not known if they [muzzle-loading weapons] are loaded or not." Then, "The rifle was loaded." Protected from moisture by a bit of grease, "the powder lay for over two hundred years, dry, still in granular form, still ready."

The events of The Rifle have been converging on yet another tragedy involving the rifle. A candle, some sparks from burning wood spilled out of the fireplace, and the placement of the rifle above both candle and fireplace conspire to fire the loaded weapon, creating the shocking climax. Paulsen follows the path of the ball in slow detail, drawing out the inevitable, using physics to explain the seemingly inexplicable convergence of boy and rifle. The bullet passes through Richard's brain:

All voluntary and involuntary action for Richard ceased instantly. His breathing stopped, his heart stopped after two beats, his brain waves stopped and all his thoughts went blank—he was effectively dead and his world ended by the time his body dropped to the floor next to the tree.

This tragedy would be enough to draw events to a close. It is almost as if the forces of the cosmos reached out to kill Richard, but this is not the point Paulsen wishes to make. From the start, his theme of death has had a particular destination. To make clear the purpose of that destination, he explains what Richard misses:

And these are the things Richard missed that were in his timeline before it intersected the timeline of the rifle: twenty-one thousand nine hundred sunrises and sunsets, three thousand one hundred twenty-seven movies, nine hundred forty-three baseball games, one hundred fourteen walks with girls on moonlit nights, nine thousand days with the warm sun beating down on his back, and swimming, hiking, seeing art in museums, watching puppies play, winning a bike race in spite of an injury, graduating from high school at the top of his class, being in the army, graduating from college, getting married in final and true love, graduating from medical school as a specialist in research on cardiacrelated diseases wherein he would have found a genetic cure for heart disease, having children and watching them grow to have children so he could watch them grow, and at last, finally, at seventy-four, becoming ill and dying quietly in his sleep—and all of this, every moment of every day of this, was gone forever with the rifle ball entering his head.

The point is that the cosmos did not kill Richard. He died because of his life crossing the life of the rifle. No person killed him. There was no intent, just carelessness. He died because of the rifle, which exists to kill. This is the point of the novel. This also explains the anti-climax, in which Tilson pulls the rifle out of the river where Harv has dropped it. He takes it home, checks it, then mounts it in his cabinet of guns. Eventually:

Tilson read an article in a gun magazine, entitled "Don't Shun That Old Smokepole," about shooting with black power, and he has been thinking seriously about getting some black powder and balls and maybe loading the rifle.

Just to see how it shoots.

And in the meantime the rifle sits in the gun cabinet.


The rifle kills people. It is a sweet rifle and that is what it does.

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