Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

"Rodman the Keeper" is a short story by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The most evident theme of the narrative is the ugliness and bitterness of war. The setting takes place during the aftermath of the Civil War, and the protagonist observes the psychological effects of violence. The protagonist also examines the generational hatred that stems from warfare, and more specifically hatred's roots in a clash of ideas about life, society, and politics.

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The other theme in the story is the act of sacrifice. The soldiers on both sides of the war sacrificed their lives and bodies for their respective causes. The protagonist realizes this and wants to give back to his fallen comrades by taking care of a Union cemetery.

Another theme of the story is the act of understanding one's fellow man. The concept of allies and enemies are irrelevant to the protagonist, because he more interested in learning about the poverty-stricken neighbors' way of life. This philosophy of compassion for others extends to the former-slave who takes care of an ex-Confederate soldier.

In essence, the story's message centers on the ability to honor the past whilst moving on from it in solidarity with fellow Americans, regardless of whether they are former enemy combatants and hostile Confederate sympathizers.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

Once widely known, Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, the American novelist famous throughout the world for his Leatherstocking tales of the early frontier, has recently begun to receive notice from feminist scholars who have promoted the work of this intelligent, sensitive, well-read writer. Ironically, “Rodman the Keeper” is difficult to regard as feminist: The women of the story (Bettina Ward and Mary, Rodman’s “promised wife”) take a distant backseat ethically to the men. To say that, however, is to admit that Woolson is capable of defying conventional expectations unlike so many of her competitors, who were writing sentimental local color stories for publication in magazines and newspapers. A less-talented hand might have made Bettina Ward see the error of her ways and accept the brave Yankee soldier who is as clearly attracted to her as she eventually is to him. That Bettina chooses instead to risk an independent life shows Woolson does not fear straying from popular formulas.

In an awkward digression never satisfactorily developed, Woolson more than once draws the reader’s attention to some French lines displayed on Rodman’s wall, which are best known in their Italian version, as part of the song “La donna e mobile,” or“woman is fickle.” Rodman even recites the quatrain aloud at Ward De Rosset’s request, lingering on one phrase: “Bien fou qui s’y fie”—“A fool is he who trusts a woman.” This jarring sentiment coming from one who most often reflects Woolson’s own thoughts seems to comment not only on Rodman’s faithless fiancé, Mary, but also on Bettina.

A more rewarding approach is to regard the story as being about the aftermath of war. Set during the Reconstruction era, less than a decade after the bloodbath that took 600,000 lives, “Rodman the Keeper” concerns itself with what has been learned—or not learned—from that conflict. The story makes clear that lives too must be reconstructed, a lesson Bettina is unable to accept in a fashion that satisfies either Rodman or the reader, though she makes the best effort she is capable of. In addition, the story is about being one’s brother’s “keeper,” to love even those who do not love us.

Again Woolson offers no easy solution. She makes clear that people are a long way from overcoming the bitterness and animosity that causes war and its consequences. Thus the story is about war and reconciliation like those splendid efforts years later by the German Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll. However, whereas Böll often makes his point about the need to love and forgive in heart-piercing language and telling metaphor, Woolson depends on rhetoric and larger-than-life character depictions.

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