Themes

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Existentialism
Arreola himself acknowledges that existentialist thought is an influence upon his work and in particular upon "The Switchman." Existentialism is a philosophy that asserts that life in and of itself is without inherent meaning and that man projects meaning onto it. When the stranger insists that he must reach his destination, he imparts urgency of purpose and thus meaning into his life. The switchman's stories, by contrast, imply the subjectivity of the stranger's desires. His bizarre tale of the railroad, with its myriad possibilities, suggests that the world—in this case the world of travel—is arbitrary and crazy and that there is something ludicrous about trying to project set expectations onto it. The world of the rails is wild and unpredictable, without reasonable, rational laws, such as the stranger's logic that a ticket to his destination should take him to it. In this way the switchman's story epitomizes the existential world, in which nothing makes logical sense. In existential literature, characters tend to be identified by their role or function rather than by a name, as they are in "The Switchman." The stranger is an example of identity through function in that he first called the stranger because he is foreign to the area and to the system, but once he changes his destination and submits to the rail system, he becomes a traveler. When the stranger changes his destination, he ceases asserting his will and submits to the existential world of the railroad.

Absurdity
By definition, absurdity concerns that which is senseless, illogical and untrue. Although there is no school of thought devoted to the absurd, an absurd worldview suggests the meeting of a meaningless world with man's efforts to impart meaning onto that world. The switchman's stories are absurd in that the events are far-fetched and ridiculous. It is out of the question, for example, that passengers would carry a dismantled train down an abyss, across a river, and up the other side to reassemble it. Similarly, it is absurd that the stranger would take these stories as truth and change his plans accordingly. The absurdity of both the stranger's actions and the switchman's tales suggest that the stranger's urgency to reach his destination is absurd. The outcome of the story reflects upon man's role in the world in general, and the absurdity in the rhythms of everyday life.

The Fantastic/Magical Realism
The fantastic in literature involves the use of detail associated with fantasy, or out of bounds of what is considered realistic. The fantastic is closely tied to the genre known as Magical Realism, which generally entails a synthesis of magical or supernatural details with things rational or realistic."The Switchman" incorporates both these genres in that the very unrealistic conversation between the stranger and switchman is narrated in a very matter-of-fact, realistic way, which allows the reader to consider the larger implications of the story without focusing on what is bizarre about the story's details. Throughout the story, use of fantastic detail is tied to the sense of the absurd. For example, it is unrealistic that people would spend a life's fortune on train tickets without knowledge of their destination, as the switchman claims. He treats this fantastic suggestion as a matter of fact, and in so doing, draws the stranger into a world in which the fantastic is the norm. In the course of the story, the reader is drawn in such that the story reads as an allegory for everyday life, in which the most basic events are imbued with a sense of the absurd.

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