Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

Nearly all of the major characters of the novel begin with a corruption of love before they proceed to a better love. Jack is a faithless womanizer, and it is not likely in the course of the novel that he experiences any great change; however, he at least resolves some of his relationships and responds to Eleanor. Giving up her undergraduate students, although perhaps not willingly, Eleanor tries to clarify past relations, particularly with Jack. Marlis begins as a parasitic lover, a person who needs to feel power over others, and although her relationship to Candice is exploitive, she is better to others because she is loved and cared for by Candice. Candice, a brittle woman with Jack, wary of her professional dignity, is fulfilled through love of Marlis and Marlis's child, the baby John. Dot is jealous about being loved by Jack, but her jealousy has little to do with love. She knows she still loves Gerry, even though they have been separated by his incarceration.

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Good love in the novel desires to preserve life. Jack tries and eventually rescues his infant son, John. Candice begins her relationship to Jack by rescuing Pepperboy, a vicious dog that Jack was going to shoot. So unhappy is Candice about her inability to have children due to an early hysterectomy, she cannot stand the taking of life. Candice is seduced by Marlis's pregnancy, which she desires for herself. Thus Candice reaches out to a woman that her values would normally cause her to despise; she not only serves as a mother to Marlis's child but also to Marlis herself.

Eleanor's mother, Anna Schlick, lost a husband and child in a freakish accident at a circus while performing on the trapeze. Torn by loss, Anna seeks victories over death. When her house is on fire, she rescues Eleanor with circus agility. When a young fireman, Jack, is freezing to death, Anna is heroic in her efforts to keep him alive, even at the peril of losing her reputation, and temporarily, her husband's love.

Even Shawn, Dot's daughter with Gerry, knows the importance of life, for Shawn protects her father from the police pursuing him. They offer her the value of honesty and truth telling, but she thoughtfully protects her father's escape, valuing life more. Shawn's choice is similar to Leopolda's at the end of her life, when Leopolda chooses to "pull forth the nails" and rejects the choice she has made throughout her vocation.

Protecting the life of the land is also important. Disgusted with Jack's plan to build a subdivision on the good farmland on which he is growing sunflowers, Jack's uncle, Chuck Mauser, says about the land that "The more you fill it up, the emptier it gets." By the end of the novel, Chuck once again has control of the land, and the sunflowers return. As the narrator says of Jack early in the novel, "Land seemed dead to Jack. To Chuck, land was living stuff." It is doubtful that Jack's feeling for the land is changed by novel's end, since he winds up being a tool of Lyman Lamartine's plan to build a large casino on Chippewa land, but a subtle shift occurs in Jack's thinking from control and domination to fitting into life.

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