Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Fritz uses the story of Benedict Arnold's life to illustrate several important themes about human behavior. First, she demonstrates that, even in times of crisis, one's character determines one's actions; people are in control of their own destinies, rather than being mere pawns swept up by events beyond their control....

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Fritz uses the story of Benedict Arnold's life to illustrate several important themes about human behavior. First, she demonstrates that, even in times of crisis, one's character determines one's actions; people are in control of their own destinies, rather than being mere pawns swept up by events beyond their control. Arnold's life serves, too, as an example of what can happen when a person's ego prods him or her to seek selfish ends; the consequences of such action can lead to personal failure and to social and political disaster as well.

Fritz relies heavily on character development to present her themes. The focus of her study is Benedict Arnold himself. She plays up the dominant personality traits of the American general: his bravery, which at times leads him to the extremes of foolhardiness, and his driving need for success and recognition. In a sense, Arnold appears as an Achilles-figure: like the Greek warrior in Homer's Iliad, he is shown to sulk when lesser figures refuse to grant him what he believes is his due.

With great subtlety, Fritz illustrates how Arnold's childhood experiences lead him to become the hero and the egotist who is indispensable to the Continental Army yet considered reprehensible by the army's governing body, the Continental Congress. The son of a successful but spend-thrift merchant, Arnold devotes his life to amassing a fortune after facing poverty as a teenager when his father goes bankrupt. Arnold's obsession with riches, coupled with his insatiable desire for fame, makes him highly susceptible to the British general Sir William Howe's offer to sell out the American forces at West Point in exchange for a handsome reward and a commission in the British Army, where Arnold believes his prowess will be better appreciated.

Fritz also provides a vivid portrayal of Arnold's wife, Margaret "Peggy" Shippen. Peggy is a Philadelphia belle whose attentions are courted by the British occupying forces in the American capital and later by the Continental officers who take over the city when the British withdraw. Peggy's own need for attention and her penchant for material goods contribute to her husband's fateful decision to betray his country. Fritz paints Peggy as a willing helpmate who schemes with her husband to outwit the Americans and who suffers in her own right when Arnold's scheme is foiled.

Other historical personages are introduced as they interact with Arnold. One sees Arnold's brief encounters with such figures as Ethan Allen; members of the Continental Congress; and the British major John Andre, the go-between who is arrested and hanged as a spy when the plot fails and Arnold escapes. Fritz vividly captures Allen's personal magnetism (which Arnold despises) and Andre's suave mannerisms without detracting from her focus on Arnold.

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