Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

This story demonstrates Jesse Stuart’s concern with both the education of and the difficulty of life for rural Americans, especially those out of the mainstream of cultural change. While the story seems on the surface to be about Dave Sexton, it is really the story of Dave’s father, Luster: the inappropriateness of his untutored response to the modern world, his anger caused by ignorance, and his willingness to change when given the opportunity to see the facts for himself. Stuart sympathizes, and would have the reader sympathize, too, with those who hold on to ways of life that are no longer quite appropriate—especially if their roughshod ways are redeemed by virtues that tend to be undervalued in more recent times. Luster represents country folk in general. He is ignorant and stubborn, but he is not unreasonable and uncompromising. He finally comes to recognize the value and the importance—indeed, the necessity—of the kind of education his son is receiving, especially Dave’s more detailed knowledge of the natural world. The isolation of rural life quickly makes social knowledge obsolete, but it nevertheless keeps those who lead this life in contact with the more elemental knowledge of life and death, of honesty and virtue.

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Dave represents young people in rural society. He lives in two worlds at the same time: the outdated world of his parents and the more current world of his school environment and friends. His struggle, the tension of his character, is to keep these two worlds together, functioning harmoniously. That he is willing to do so, that he makes such an effort to lead both lives successfully, is a sure sign of Stuart’s optimism and his faith in the young.

In one sense, Stuart’s “Split Cherry Tree” is an example of a recurring fictional pattern, the coming-of-age story. Frequently in this pattern, adolescents must solve problems of sexuality or identity in order to become fully functioning adults, though other problems of adulthood are common in this form. For example, many of Ernest Hemingway’s young characters learn to deal with the existence of evil. Stuart’s variation on the coming-of-age theme requires Dave to solve the dilemma of the old versus the new, the home and the world. In resolving this conflict, Dave becomes ready to assume a more mature place in both his family and society.

Above all, Stuart is concerned with the lives of those about whom he writes. In literary terms, this concern makes him a writer who emphasizes character above either plot or theme, though in this story all three elements are superbly coordinated, a major reason why “Split Cherry Tree” is one of Stuart’s best.

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