Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

When a thirty-four-year-old man becomes obsessed with an eighteen-month-old girl whom he is baby-sitting, the reader, accustomed to kidnap and child abuse shock stories, may initially feel uneasy. If the man were the girl’s father and the word “love” were used instead of “obsessed,” the reader would smile approvingly. So why cannot a man, even though he is not the parent, idealistically love a little girl for her grace and beauty and innocence? This is the thematic question that Kevin Brockmeier—a dreamer, a writer of fairy tales, and a fabulist—poses in “These Hands.”

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Although it is certainly risky for Brockmeier to write a story in which a grown man’s love for an eighteen-month-old baby is described in terms usually associated with a man’s erotic love for an adult woman, in the first paragraph, Lewis says that what he longs for is something that is not ugly, false, or confused. He believes in the possibility of grace and kindness, and beauty. Later in the story, he talks more about this notion of ideal beauty when he says as a matter of simple aesthetics, the ideal human form is that of the small child because people lose all sense of grace as they mature.

Lewis says that what he loves about Caroline is the concept of the heart known as the “salient point”—that point at which people merge with the universe. What Brockmeier risks exploring in this story is the mysterious nature of love itself, which, in its primal, polymorphous perverse form, knows no limitations of gender or age or species, but simply is the uncontrollable desire to be completely at one with the loved one. This is the basic desire of love in all fairy tales and romance literature, from Cathy’s cry in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), “I am Heathcliff,” to Aschenbach’s agonizing fall from restraint and order into the beauty of the young boy Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925). The lover does not want something so coarse as sexuality; Lewis thinks of Caroline not as a physical being but rather as a form of pure beauty, innocence, grace, and perfection. The misunderstanding at the end of the story that he wants something so mundane as a sexual encounter with Caroline’s mother is sadly ironic in that it makes any further relationship with Caroline impossible. Like Wing Biddlebaum in Sherwood Anderson’s story “Hands” (1919), it is the physicality of the hands that desire to touch in a purely nonphysical way that creates misunderstanding. What Lewis wants, what the romantic dreamer always wants, cannot be “handled” physically.

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