Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

The pigeon, referred to in the title of the story, makes a final satiric comment on the self-deceiving romanticism of Muhlbach. His need for companionship, both physical and emotional, is so great that he finds the potential for passion in the most unlikely situations. Muhlbach admits that he is immature, even adolescent, in terms of his sexual fantasies. He is also unrealistic in his expectation that sophisticated women would find him attractive. References to his balding head, diffident manner, and awkwardness while making conversation suggest that Evan S. Connell, Jr., intends Muhlbach to appear like the title character of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

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The central thematic point of “Saint Augustine’s Pigeon” arises from the juxtaposition of Muhlbach’s conscious descent into the hell of New York City’s nightlife and his unintentional ascent from this dark world by the assistance of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. The satire to which Connell subjects Muhlbach depends on awareness of the aptness of the passages he quotes from the Confessions, and it further depends on recognition that Muhlbach misreads, at times deliberately, Saint Augustine’s meaning. The confusion of body and soul that he experiences leads him to find justification in the Confessions for a conscious choice of sin, and it is only through the agency of the saint’s pigeon that Muhlbach attains a truer insight. “I have spent one whole night attempting to distort the truth which was born in me,” he concludes; “now I have learned.”

The truth Muhlbach recognizes may be something as simple as the necessity of being true to one’s own nature. Muhlbach, from the very start of the story, is an unlikely actor in the drama he imagines for himself. Recognition of the fact that he may have to content himself with Eula Cunningham would come hard, but it would confirm his acceptance of the truth conveyed by the pigeon’s action. The message from Saint Augustine may also have something to do with Muhlbach’s need to accept the loss of his wife, Joyce, whose illness and eventual death are the subject of an earlier story entitled “Arcturus,” published in Connell’s The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories (1957).

Connell also treats Muhlbach as a character in two stories called “The Mountains of Guatemala” and “Otto and the Magi,” both reprinted with “Saint Augustine’s Pigeon” in At the Crossroads (1965), and in the novels The Connoisseur (1974) and Double Honeymoon (1976).

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