Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

The most praised of West's novels, The Thinking Reed expands upon themes first set forth in The Return of the Soldier (1918). West's concern here is the malaise of Europeans after the First World War, a malaise created in fact by the war. The world through which Isabelle, the novel's...

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The most praised of West's novels, The Thinking Reed expands upon themes first set forth in The Return of the Soldier (1918). West's concern here is the malaise of Europeans after the First World War, a malaise created in fact by the war. The world through which Isabelle, the novel's main character, moves is a world without order, and the disorder which eventually results, symbolically, in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, looms near the novel's end. Through Isabelle's American perspective and her affairs with several European men, West critiques French and English, as well as American, culture after the war, finding culture without the order it had before the Great War.

Isabelle, an American from St. Louis, lives in France and in the course of the novel becomes involved with four different men: Laurence Vernon, an American whom she nearly marries; Andre de Verniers, a French aristocrat who is completely corrupt and decadent; Marc Sallafranque, an automobile manufacturer as corrupt as de Verviers; and Alan Fielding, an English painter who befriends her when her marriage to Marc breaks up after she miscarries her child. These men represent certain aspects of society in decline, and Isabelle has only one lasting relationship (with Marc) with any of them.

These relationships have much to say about European society — conspicuous wealth, lack of real love, and shallow, materialistic thinking — but they also say much about Isabelle. West continually moves from a critique of society to a rather harsh critique of her main character. Isabelle cannot resolve what she knows with what she feels. Her intellect conflicts with her sexual and emotional needs, thus her marriage to Marc. Isabelle does not see the contradictions which surround her: She readily blames society for many others' problems but finds her own problems personal and individual. West heightens this conflict between self and society at the novel's end when Isabelle misunderstands her Uncle Honore's dire warnings about the Stock Market. Marc and Isabelle have reconciled, and Isabelle refuses to allow society's problems to impinge on her personal happiness. West's society at the end of the novel is still disordered and on the brink of economic collapse. Isabelle's critiques of society ring ironically hollow as she does not heed her uncle's warning but is content, like those she often criticizes, to be concerned only with herself.

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