Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

The metaphor of the map in this story reflects Max’s personal efforts to discover where he is and therefore who he is. This is complicated by the fact that he is in a wild area where he cannot find any context within which to locate himself. He is distant socially from the men with whom he works, and he is distant spatially from his wife, Clara. Moreover, because it takes so long for letters to get to him from Clara, his emotions lag far behind the events. For example, for him, it is as though his new daughter had just been born, although she is five months old. Moreover, the sensory data he is confronted with every day is a jumble in his mind until he writes them down, either in his journal or in letters to Clara. Although he considers himself a “servant of the map” that he and his companions are preparing, the map is in process, not an accomplished artifact.

Because everything Max experiences is translated into language, either in the letters or his journals, the writing process as a means of capturing and understanding reality is a large component of the theme of the story. However, because Max can scarcely recognize himself any longer, he finds it difficult to use language to make clear to Clara the “aberrant knots” of his character. One of the various results of this “living by writing” is that one’s pleasures are seen in retrospect, not in the present, becoming acts of the imagination rather than events in the physical world. Moreover, Max feels he has heretofore been blind and that he is now learning to see, a process that becomes more important to him than anything else.

Max’s past life seems to be disappearing as the story progresses. Ultimately he wants to tell Clara that everything has changed for him, that he is changed. However, he cannot, feeling that if his letters were meant to be a map of his mind, a way for her to follow his trail, then he has failed. This does not suggest a deficiency in Max’s ability to communicate, but rather an inescapable characteristic of communicating by language. In her contributor’s notes to Prize Stories, 2001: The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Short Stories, 2001, Andrea Barrett says that as she wrote many drafts of the story she realized that its central theme had to do with the implications of communicating with one’s beloved solely through letters over a long period of time. As Max says in one of his letters, which he later scratches out, “Trying to stay in touch without touch . . . changes us deeply, perhaps ever deforms us.”

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