Themes and Meanings
The primary theme of Ethan Canin’s story rests in the conflict between the practical spirit that wants to accomplish concrete and worthwhile things and the tendency for creativity, insight, and romantic dreaming. These two opposing spirits are personified by Dade’s businessman father and his hopeful, romantic mother. Their hopes for Dade and his future are played out on the roof and in the store. Down in the store he works hard at the checkout counter and in the stockroom, but sometimes he neglects his work, even when his father needs him, in order to gaze at stars and clouds, which are food for his thoughts. He is an extremely introspective eighteen-year-old, but his musings never seem to come to much. He has no definite goals of his own. Unlike many boys his age, he does not fantasize about cars, girls, sports, or even escaping from his town or his family. He does not think about the drudgery or rewards of running a business, nor mention any friends or pastimes.
As a thoughtful young man, he recognizes his indecisiveness. The family often goes to the movies on Friday evenings. Dade’s self-awareness is reflected in his comments about the films:I liked the movies because I imagined myself doing everything the heroes did—deciding to invade at daybreak, swimming half the night against the seaward current—but whenever we left the theater I was disappointed. From the front row, life seemed like a clear set of decisions, but on the street afterward, I realized that the world existed all around me and I didn’t know what I wanted. The quiet of evening and the ordinariness of human voices startled me.
In an interview published in Contemporary Authors, Canin admits that he closely identifies with the character Dade. He thinks the tension between the romantic and practical views of the world creates a driving force that he sees in himself. It is these forces that propel Dade first one way and then the other. Finally, he realizes that he will not make the kind of discoveries his mother is hoping for, and he will also not feel the zeal for stock work and business that his father wishes he did. At one point, Dade shouts to the highway and the cars, “Tell me what I want.” He waits expectantly, but no answer comes. At the story’s end, he still has not decided where he thinks he should be directing his efforts. Perhaps by realizing that he cannot satisfy either of his parents and recognizing that each person is essentially alone, he has made a start in finding his own direction.