Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

A common theme in the modern novel is the sense of alienation among people in contemporary society. My Secret History takes up this theme. The novel focuses on the life of Andre Parent, a Catholic who grows up in Boston during the 1950s and who copes with the repressive environment...

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A common theme in the modern novel is the sense of alienation among people in contemporary society. My Secret History takes up this theme. The novel focuses on the life of Andre Parent, a Catholic who grows up in Boston during the 1950s and who copes with the repressive environment of his early life by living two lives — one open and conforming, the other secret and reckless. Through this novel, Theroux makes dual comments on modern society: that repressive and judgmental forces are driving everyone to hypocrisy and that such secrecy can go unchecked because of extreme isolation. Theroux suggests that people compartmentalize their lives to accommodate the conflicting demands of society and self. Because people are judgmental and dictatorial regarding the behaviors of others, they turn to secrecy in order to fulfill themselves without jeopardizing their status in the community. As Andre notes, "as soon as someone else's eyes are on us we are diminished — made into ugly miniatures of ourselves."

In the novel, Andre avoids social censure by ostensibly behaving in a respectable manner as a Peace Corps volunteer and headmaster of an African school. Simultaneously, he lives out his fantasy life of uninhibited sex with a variety of African girls whom he picks up each weekend at a local bar. Other characters have secrets as well. When Andre is a young man, he and several women from the Catholic church accompany one of the parish priests, Father Furty, on his boat where the women flirt with the priest and drink "bug juice" (alcoholic punch). On one trip, when Father Furty jokes that he hopes that "the Boss" (the Pastor) does not find out about their drinking, Andre notes that these "secret words seemed scandalous to [the women] and they laughed hard." With the seed planted in his mind as to how to live his life of hypocrisy, Andre eventually pushes this basic precept of secrecy to the limit, actually setting up two households (and two lives): one in England with his wife and son, and one in America with his mistress. As Andre notes while he sits in a hospital waiting room in Africa:

In this waiting room no one is what he or she seems. The man with the little girl is not her father — he is a child molester. The married couple are actually saying good-bye — she is going to meet her lover, he's off to visit his mistress. The cowboy is a homo.

The prevalence of these secret histories underscores human isolation. Because Andre and these other characters live during a time when people are increasingly less connected with others, their secrets escape notice. At one point, for example, Andre states:

I had two lives but I had intimations today that because there were two they were both incomplete, I lived in the cracks between them — had only ever lived in that space. Outside it, among others, I was not Myself, and so no one knew me. Was that everyone's condition — that we were each of us unknown?

My Secret History answers "yes" to this question. The novel depicts contemporary society, worldwide, as failing to care for the individual, causing many to live fragmented and alienated existences.

The novel also addresses, although only cursorily, censorship (during a discussion about the ban of Henry Miller's work, a character responds "Imagine preventing people from reading something — as if reading is going to make us into monsters!") and abortion rights (two different characters describe the horrors of their illegal abortions). American elitism is also explored as Andre experiences prejudice from the wealthy who frequent the swimming pool where he lifeguards; Andre comments, "I had no money, and it seemed as if, having none, I did not exist."

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