Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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The story of the young man who falls in love with a young woman and asks her antagonistic father for her hand in marriage is universal in appeal. One theme is how love transcends family differences in its patience, kindness, and strength. The background of the family discord between the Neumillers and Joneses presents another thematic issue: a confident, educated, successful, faithful Roman Catholic family confronts a suffering, semitransient, regressive Protestant family. “The Suitor” echoes William Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1596) and even the legend of Tristan and Isolde; each of these stories concerns young people who must reconcile cultural differences in order to love each other.

However, the enigmatic Ed Jones, not the lovers, stands as the emotional and thematic center of “The Suitor.” He represents the guardian of old ways (symbolized by traditional farming) and the keeper of the treasure (Alpha), but suffers from personal difficulties with drinking and trying to support his family. Despite his problems, Ed attempts to celebrate life in his drinking and singing, evading his problems on the wings of a different type of love—narcissism.

“The Suitor” explores the spiritual potential of the half-beaten Ed Jones. Darkness and light are mixed in equal proportions in him, making his a dynamic, complex personality. Ed’s love of animals, his pride in his horses, and his painful battle with weeds place him close to nature. Although Ed is partially defeated, he lives life to its fullest and enjoys harassing the youthful Martin Neumiller. Ed’s proper role is resistance to the kind of change Martin represents: education, business, machinery, and marriage. Metaphorically, Ed guards his fortress by protecting the things dearest to him, but his complexity allows him to transcend his own limitations.

Ed resents the dogmatic religion of both his wife and Martin’s family. “The Suitor” suggests the possibility that this rebellious and unpredictable character is, in fact, the most genuinely spiritual. This is proven by his “offices,” such as care for animals, and his observance of Sunday despite the storm and Martin’s apathy. Ed accepts Martin as a surrogate son and receiver of his daughter, despite the fact the Neumillers have rejected him. Martin’s mother is judgmental of Ed’s behavior, while Ed suspends his biases in favor of giving his blessings to the marriage of Martin and Alpha. Ed thus shows the true path of unconditional love.