Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Curiously, the number nine looms large in the substructure of Theophilus North: At the start of the novel, the narrator lists his nine boyhood ambitions; not long thereafter, he will divide Newport into nine distinct but sometimes intersecting “cities,” following Theodor Schliemann’s division of ancient Troy. Later, he will present his remarkable theory of the “constellations” in human friendship; each human life, he maintains, should be complemented by two sets of nine friends, evenly divided by sex and further divided by age: three older, three contemporary, and three younger. Such classifications, at first rather bewildering, begin to make sense as they are used to explain or elucidate the action: As North moves freely among the nine cities, he will act out one after another of his nine boyhood ambitions, frequently two or more at once, functioning as detective, anthropologist, actor, magician, and picaro, to name only a few of his roles. In the process, he will also acquire new friends to add to his “constellations.”

Significantly, North’s early choices of possible professions included both anthropology and archaeology, distinct if closely related fields. Newport fascinates him both for its past and for its present, as a kind of living artifact, and it is Newport’s people, whether dead or alive, that are the most interesting of all. As a student of human nature, North appears to have few peers, yet his talents and methods...

(The entire section is 446 words.)