Themes

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

Several themes parallel and reflect one another in this series of interconnected stories. The most obvious may be the one in which Styron's various social concerns affect his characters. World War II, the Great Depression, and the lingering racist legacy of slavery consistently reveal the power of historical circumstance to...

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Several themes parallel and reflect one another in this series of interconnected stories. The most obvious may be the one in which Styron's various social concerns affect his characters. World War II, the Great Depression, and the lingering racist legacy of slavery consistently reveal the power of historical circumstance to maim and victimize individual people. In "Love Day" on April Fool's Day, 1945, Paul Whitehurst on his troopship remembers witnessing a dogfight in the sky the day before, at the same time he learns that his Marine unit will be involved not in a real battle but in a mock amphibious attack in an attempt to draw the Japanese away from the authentic invasion. In "A Tidewater Morning" at the age of thirteen he reads the headlines in the local paper in 1938 about the approaching war. In both cases the war underscores the human discord and sense of anxious urgency that surround and envelop him.

The Tidewater of the 1930s that Styron recreates is a veritable wasteland, having been played out by years of tobacco growing. Within this exhausted landscape the Great Depression has settled all too clearly, and his characters must do what they can in order to survive, whether it be through Paul's newspaper route, his father's job at the Newport News shipyard, or the Dabneys' making illicit whiskey at their illegal still.

In "Shadrach" an old black man returns to the Dabneys' land to die, a fugitive from slavery returning to the place from which he was sold years ago. His death ends an era in Paul's life as does the death of his mother and the interminable grief of his father. But it also reveals the clashing perspectives about color and class that persist in his parents. Adelaide Whitehurst is a Pennsylvania Yankee, a graduate of Bryn Mawr, who looks down on all the people of the Tidewater and views them from the perspective of higher and lower classes. Jeff Whitehurst maintains that the Southerners' perspective of the black is far more humane and caring than his wife's. The issue, ever present, is not so much resolved as exacerbated by their individual ways of looking at things, thus dividing them as man and wife, Yankee and Southerner, father and mother.

Within or beneath these more social concerns lies Styron's constant sense of dislocation and human discord, the never-ending and relentless pain that comes from the irrevocable feeling of loss, sorrow, homesickness, and despondency. On board the troopship Paul experiences this sense of homesickness and remembers an argument between his parents when he was eleven years old. He remembers all too well his cancer-ridden mother's stony rage and his father's sweeping sense of desolation that no amount of social concern can eradicate. Human suffering lies at the heart of Styron's vision in all its many facets, and the deaths of Adelaide Whitehurst and Shadrach only add to the continued awareness of the young Paul Whitehurst's suffering and the older narrator's years later.

Styron persists in tracing the landmark experiences of growing up — Paul's experience of war in 1945 and the memory of his parents' bickerings in 1936, his memory of the Dabneys and Shadrach's death in 1935, and his mother's death in 1938. These epiphanies mark the end of childhood innocence and reveal the continuing sense of depression and desolation that will not leave him. Growing up becomes a hazardous course which must deal with death, loss, war, and their irrevocable effects. At the same time Paul Whitehurst remains a solitary soul, an only child (as Styron was) left to cope with the horrors that life reveals to him and his own despondent introspection. The process of growing up uncovers a series of wounds and remembered events that will not heal.

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