Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The desolate setting, the inability of the boy to understand the man’s story, Leo’s unfailing cynicism—all point to the theme of this story, and that of much of Carson McCullers’s fiction: the spiritual isolation inherent in the human condition. The only attempt at communication in the story—the old man’s desperate...

(The entire section contains 441 words.)

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The desolate setting, the inability of the boy to understand the man’s story, Leo’s unfailing cynicism—all point to the theme of this story, and that of much of Carson McCullers’s fiction: the spiritual isolation inherent in the human condition. The only attempt at communication in the story—the old man’s desperate attempt to explain the “science” of love to the adolescent paperboy—is necessarily a thwarted one: Like the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), the boy is a captive audience, unwilling to listen, but compelled to by the strangeness of the speaker; like the Mariner in that same poem, the man is worn out from having told his story too often. Leo has only contempt for the man, and no words at all for the boy. A sad tale told by a defeated old man to a puzzled boy is the only vestige of human sympathy and communication in the dark world of this story.

Nor is love an answer to the dilemma posed by the story. Clearly, the old man is a victim of love, at least of romantic love: The unexpected loss of his wife was a blow from which he has never quite recovered, even though nearly eleven years have elapsed between her leaving and the time of the story. Having experienced the common reactions to betrayal—the period of obsession to get the loved one back, followed by a period of recklessness and dissipation—the old man has developed a “science” by which he can love everything he observes. Though he is composed, almost unnaturally so, during the telling of his story, it is important to remember that a man who, only somewhat more than a decade before, was happily married and gainfully employed is now little more than a bum. His decline is a testament to the illusory and transient nature of romantic love and to the bitter ways in which it can affect the human spirit.

Though it brings him a certain measure of peace and contentment, the man’s “science” is clearly a mechanism that enables him to cope with his lingering misery. By willing himself to love anything or anyone, he thereby avoids the kind of spontaneous, but uncontrollable, love that has nearly destroyed him. The final stage of his “science,” the one toward which he presumably is working, is romantic love, the love for a woman. However, by the end of the story, the reader, and perhaps even the boy, knows that he will never again reach that stage, having been hurt by it too badly before.

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