Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

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The key thematic statements in “Train” belong to Mr. Muirhead, who tells his daughter Jane and her friend Danica that the desires of the human heart have no boundaries and that the “mess of secrets” in the human heart are without number. At the end, he tells Danica that he hopes that she enjoys her childhood, for when people grow up, a shadow falls over them. He also tells her that when he grows up he wants to become an Indian so he can use his Indian name, “He Rides a Slow Enduring Heavy Horse.” The sense of life as like being on a train in transition between one point and another is the pervasive theme throughout the story. There is no real stability for the characters, either the parents, whose relationship seems tenuous at best, or for the children, who feel lonely and adrift because of that shaky relationship. There does not seem to be any explanation for this sense of loneliness and isolation beyond Mr. Muirhead’s suggestion about some huge black wing that casts a shadow over adults.

As is typical of so-called minimalist realism in the American short story of the 1970’s, the thematic strands of “Train” derive not from significant plot events but from the repetition of various thematic motifs throughout the story. One of the most prominent of these motifs is the discussion that Mr. Muirhead has with a young man about cemeteries. In describing his visit to a cemetery in Mexico that had a museum of mummies, bodies preserved by the dry heat of the area, Mr. Muirhead says it is one thing to think of the idea of a Christian heaven or Buddhist incarnation or even the scientific concept of no energy ever being lost, but it is another thing altogether to look at those miserable mummies in the little museum. The horror and indignation on their faces made Mr. Muirhead so aware of the fleetingness of this life, he says, that he almost cried out loud.

The theme of the fleetingness of life is echoed in the motif of Mr. Muirhead always losing things that his wife gives him. She recalls every gift she ever gave him, either monetary or of the heart, and how he has mishandled or betrayed every one of them. This sense of lost opportunities, of the inability to recapture what is lost, is echoed in such seemingly trivial details as the fact that Danica watches Superman on television, particularly his spinning the earth backward to return to a previous time so he can keep Lois Lane from being smothered in a rock slide. The inability to recapture lost opportunities receives its final echo at the end of the story when Mr. Muirhead asks Danica about what might have been on the note that he ate rather than read. Mr. Muir asks plaintively, “Do you think there’s something I’ve missed?”