Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

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Irwin Shaw was considered a very political writer, often with leftist overtones in his work, but in “Sailor Off the Bremen,” his thrust is simply antifascist, not necessarily procommunist. He seems, instead, to point to a happy medium between the two political extremes as the ideal for political thought.

Fascism is made repulsive by its representative in the story, the Nazi Lueger. Preminger (a German communist, and thus diametrically opposed to the German Nazi Party) may be prejudiced, but the reader must concur with his judgment where Lueger is concerned. Preminger, in reporting Ernest’s beating, observes that the other stewards charged with breaking up the demonstration at least “were human beings. [Lueger] is a member of the Nazi party.” To further emphasize Lueger’s repugnance, Shaw hints that the Nazi is also a sadist, particularly in the scenes in which he and Sally walk through the streets alone; he takes pleasure in hurting her, pinching her arm, and kissing her harshly. Lueger and, by representation, fascism are thus portrayed by Shaw as being evil and, as he attempted to warn in this story in 1939, the time of the story’s appearance, dangerous.

Although fascism is bad, communism is not necessarily good, as the communists are seen as impotent to act against Lueger. It is Charley, the football player, the thoroughly American man (whose only philosophy, according to Ernest, is “Somebody knocks you down, you knock him down, everything is fine”), who takes matters into his own hands and acts while the communists can only talk. Only after he has taken the initiative do Ernest’s communist friends follow him. Preminger even delineates the concern for party over person when, “as a party member,” he agrees with Ernest that no point can be served by paying Lueger back for the loss of his eye, but “as a man” he advises Charley to “put Lueger on his back for at least six months.” He cannot have personal thoughts if the party is uppermost in his mind, and only when he thinks for himself does he admit that a wrongdoer must be punished, that some sort of action must be taken.

The sympathy of the reader is clearly with Charley and Sally, the Americans who are not affiliated with either political extreme. Charley and Sally’s concern is not some lofty ideological goal, but rather the simple human concern of seeing that justice is done—literally an eye for an eye in this case. Through this sympathy for the middle course, Shaw points at the necessity of taking violent action against fascism. However, also seems to say that neither fascism nor communism measures up to the standards of American democracy.