Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The quest and Oedipal motifs are central to his novel, and they are most poignantly delineated in the character of Stanley, whose love-hate relationship with Leo is the motivating force of his life. Jean explains that “he’s angry at his father for abandoning him; at the same time he misses him and loves him.” This omnipresence of the past is the primary theme of the work, and Macdonald’s attitude toward it is expressed in a letter from a minister to Stanley: “The past can do very little for us—no more than it has already done, for good or ill—except in the end to release us. We must seek and accept release, and give release.” Archer thinks that the Reverend Riceyman “had given Stanley good advice” and regrets that the young man had failed to take it. Perhaps Stanley simply did not live long enough.

The forest fire that rages in the background of much of the action is a leitmotif that also functions as a metaphor for man’s alienation from his fellows, from himself, and from nature. It consumes everything in its path in the same wantonly destructive manner as the characters in pursuit of their dreams or in rebellion against their nightmares. Archer’s initial reaction to the blaze invokes war, the ultimate destructive act of alienated man: “Under and through the smoke I caught glimpses of fire like the flashes of guns too far away to be heard. The illusion of war was completed by an old two-engine bomber, which flew in low over the...

(The entire section is 410 words.)