Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

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The overriding theme of “The Ugliest House in the World” is responsibility—how it is met and how it is shirked. Before the action of the story begins, the narrator defines “ash cash”—a slang term used by the narrator and his colleagues for a special payment by the hospital to physicians for signing a cremation order. The hospital administration prefers cremation to burial because the impossibility of exhumation, in the case of questions about the cause of death, protects the hospital from any embarrassing discoveries. The special payment is, according to the narrator, for taking “responsibility.” Although “ash cash” is not mentioned again and is not an element in the action of the story, this early and specific reference to it informs everything that follows.

There is also the issue of the father’s severance pay. After thirty-five years of work for the same company and just before being eligible to collect his pension, he is laid off with a single cash payment. Like the hospital paying its “ash cash,” the father’s employer buys its way out of its responsibility. In another case of shirked responsibility, the father of the dead child abandoned the pregnant mother at the age of sixteen. Finally, the local men at the funeral confront the narrator and his father about their responsibility in Gareth’s death.

Both the hospital and the father’s employer are able to deflect responsibility with monetary payments, and neither the narrator nor any of the characters openly question the propriety of these policies. However, it is not just the impersonality of the organizations that allows their callousness to be accepted. The absent father of the dead child is mentioned only in passing and dismissed by Kate as a “wanker,” but there is no examination of his failure to perform his paternal duties, even though he is an individual and directly responsible for his actions.

However, the narrator and his father are confronted at the funeral and taken to task for their perceived culpability in the death of the child. The difference is that they are there and are accessible. Although the gatepost had not been maintained for years before the narrator’s father purchased the cottage and was probably a hazard for some time, the former owners are not blamed. Furthermore, the precarious stone hovel between the two properties is equally dangerous and could just as easily have been the site of a fatal accident—but it was not. The accident happened when and where it did, and the narrator and his father were available to be blamed.

A secondary theme in the story has to do with nationalism, specifically Welsh nationalism, and the sense of belonging. The narrator’s father returns to Wales because he feels that he belongs there. It is where he grew up and where his ancestors are buried. However, to the local Welshmen, he has been away and lost his status as a Welshman. In their minds, he does not belong. This makes it easier to blame him for the death of the child. Again, blame has as much to do with who is available and blamable as it does with actual responsibility. When Kate tells the narrator that it is nobody’s fault because it is everybody’s fault, the pool of potential culprits is expanded infinitely. Now, blame can be assigned to whomever is handy and useful for the purpose.