Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

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In “Two Brothers,” Brian Evenson portrays the devastating effects of religious fanaticism in the life of one family. Daddy Norton’s self-appointed status as a prophet and visionary has catastrophic consequences on all the members of his family. By refusing to allow his family to call for an ambulance when he falls and suffers a compound fracture to his leg, he condemns himself to suffer an excruciating death. Claiming that he has foreseen this event and learned God’s intentions, Daddy Norton assembles his family around him and uses the opportunity of his accident to effect a moral and religious lesson. He asks his wife to bring him the book of the Holy Word, the volume in which he has recorded his prophecies and inspired words.

As the brief scenes leading up to his death poignantly reveal, Daddy Norton’s religious fanaticism dominates every aspect of his family’s lives. The exhortation to live not by bread but by the word of God lies at the heart of Daddy Norton’s refusal to allow his wife to prepare a meal for his two sons as the day drags on. Theron’s hunger is seen as a sign of moral weakness and evokes threats and condemnation from Mama. Consumed by religiosity, Daddy Norton and his wife view their children as sinners rather than as children. It is noteworthy that the author never reveals the ages of Theron or Aurel. Evenson portrays a world in which the age of the two boys, their situation as children, is irrelevant. They are only sinners, the victims of a pernicious objectification.

Daddy Norton’s religious practice suggests a connection with the Mormon tradition of prophecy. Beginning with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has viewed its church leadership as the modern heirs of the prophetic tradition familiar in the Hebrew scriptures. The pronouncements of Smith, Young, and their successors have acquired the status of revealed texts. Collected in The Doctrine and Covenants and continuing in messages issued by the First Presidency of the Church, these writings form the foundation of Mormon belief and practice. Daddy Norton sees himself as a prophet in a similar fashion, anointed by God as a prophet to speak the divine word.

Evenson’s story eerily parallels the story of Esau and Jacob in chapter 27 of Genesis. Like Esau, the older son of Isaac, Theron is primarily concerned with practical issues such as going to the kitchen for bread to feed himself and his brother, exploring the house in search of supplies after the death of Daddy Norton, and going outside the house in search of food when starvation threatens. From the beginning, he rejects his father’s religiosity and focuses on the material needs of his brother and himself. Aurel, like Jacob, is the heir of his parents’ religious faith. His sensitivity is badly shaken by the scene of conflict between his parents and Theron. Even as he slips further and further into physical paralysis, his focus remains on spiritual concerns. He takes special interest in his brother’s description of Daddy Norton’s room. While his brother lies dying from an untreated dog bite, Aurel seeks out his father’s prophetic writings and reads them over and over. In the end, he reaffirms the spiritual legacy of his upbringing and lays himself down to die beside his brother. Like Esau and Jacob, the two brothers of Evenson’s story are the heirs of a religious patriarch. However, unlike Isaac’s blessing of prosperity on his sons, Daddy Norton’s legacy holds the promise only of madness and self-destruction.