Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

Although character development and theme are always closely related, in Small Changes they are intertwined to an unusual degree. Every change and response of a character is both a contribution to that character’s growth and a support for the integration of the personal and political—a central theme of the novel. Piercy’s choice of setting for Small Changes also provides a natural vehicle for this theme. The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of social upheaval in America, and the novel illustrates the personal and political interrelationships of most of the issues that troubled the consciences of the youth of the time: the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, academia versus activism, research versus military applications, alternative life-styles, ecology, natural foods, drug use, and so on. As the title suggests, the societal impact of some changes is not necessarily in proportion to the way in which society measures or values change. When one person refuses to accept an oppressive sex role, she or he has made a measurable contribution to the movement, even if that change is seen as “small” (insignificant) by other members of the society.

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Of all the elements of change working on the characters, it is the women’s movement which must be considered the central issue of the novel, not because it is inherently more important than war protest or ecology but because, without it, half the population of potential activists would be limited in the extent to which they could commit themselves to any cause. One of many examples of this is Wanda Rosario, who, before meeting Beth Walker, was a significant force in various antiestablishment protests until she married another activist; then she became Joe’s wife first and catalyst for social change only in her spare time—her most notable contribution to the revolution being the care of Joe’s house and children. In Marge Piercy’s view, this is an irony which should arouse anger.

With Beth as disciple, then apostle, of the movement, and Miriam as the precious soul in jeopardy, Piercy has created and taken advantage of many opportunities to raise and argue the issues. The fundamental concerns of equality and respect are often shrouded in their small, but accurate, representations—who cooks, who cleans, who wears the pants in the family. Nevertheless, the struggle, the pain that both Miriam and Beth endure is indicative of how deeply ingrained are assumptions about sex roles. It is repression that is culturally, socially, psychically, spiritually, and physically reinforced in all but the most rarified of environments (specifically Beth’s communes in New Hampshire, where, she feels, it is almost possible to forget about the repression that in the rest of the world is “common as Social Security numbers and fillings”). Although the men of the 1960’s and the 1970’s did not create this repressive order, they are, in the eyes of feminists such as Beth, responsible for perpetuating it. Miriam is less certain of this viewpoint, but ironically her fate confirms the validity of Beth’s radical stance.

The alternatives available to women by the end of the novel seem limited by the examples set by the protagonists: a housewife in danger of losing her husband’s love or a radical lesbian turned criminal and fugitive in order to live with her lover and her two children as a family. Yet Piercy has not intended these examples to be the only choices; Miriam and Beth represent extremes. They are forced to pay the price that an oppressive society exacts for fighting the status quo or, in Miriam’s case, accepting it so miserably. There are several alternatives forming the background to the struggles of Miriam and Beth. They are not all ideal either, but Dorine, a formerly self-hating and servile woman who has found her self-respect in a career and a reasonable lover in a reformed Phil, offers contrived hope for the future of heterosexual relations, and Beth and Wanda’s efforts to hold their family together are optimistic and admirable in spite of the circumstances.

While the polemics of feminism rage in the forefront of the novel, the relationships, or, as Piercy calls them throughout the book, the connections between the characters, remain the source of change and therefore of power. As the personal and political merge, active resistance to whatever or whoever is oppressive can take place. Even Miriam, who is at her weakest and most vulnerable point as the novel closes, feels the strength of “the connections she had somehow preserved through attrition”:Out of such connections she could weave no security, no protection against her worst fears. But of such connections were wrought an end to the slow relentless dying back she had known and the slow undramatic refounding, single thought by small decision by petty act, of a life: her life.

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