Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

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One of the major themes in this story is that of the emerging consciousness of a young child. The overwrought and almost exhausting flood of sensations and emotions, collecting around but also subtly contradicting the idea of happiness, eventually reveals a psychological portrait of the narrator and of her childhood. The narrative’s series of episodes demonstrates how a child begins to lose her innocence and develops an awareness of complexity within her own consciousness and in the characters of her two parents. The little girl begins to discern differences in her parents and in her relationship with them, and in retrospect, she begins to see that the magical happiness of that time was a mysterious and complicated condition that involved suffering as well as joy. That she is actually speaking about this is in itself a sign that she is articulating impressions and sensations only tentatively felt at the time, but that, with maturity, she can identify and name.

As she begins to sort through her overwhelming sensations, she struggles to get to the heart of the family drama that is being played out underneath the surface. Describing herself and her mother as two moons who bask in the reflected light of her charismatic father, the little girl is also haunted by her jealousy of her mother, as well as her mother’s jealousy of her. In the end, however, this conflict is resolved in her mother’s favor. The emphasis on her mother as the “winner” suggests a contest on the part of the parents to gain the affection of the child, turning her into a pawn or victim even as she is also the beloved. It also suggests that her mother has, if not altogether consciously, regained her own center of power by the end of the story, winning not only her daughter but also her husband back after seeming to lose them when they pair off during the fevered feeding of the pigeons in the piazza.

As a result of the complicated dynamics inside this family, the theme of “happiness” becomes increasingly unstable and ironic. At the outset of the story, the narrator promises a depiction of happiness that includes cruelty and criminality, a promise fulfilled by the narrator’s series of epiphanic moments in which pleasure is inevitably mixed with pain, and in which her mother and father themselves display powers and possibilities that are not altogether innocent or virtuous.

Another theme in this story is the human capacity for mystical experience or transformation within an unlikely consciousness or context—such as that of a little girl feeding pigeons. During the time she is feeding the pigeons, the little girl’s experience becomes virtually hallucinatory; at one point she feels she has metamorphosed into an angel or fantastic bird-child. Similarly, her experience of watching the nighttime mountains with her mother also has a mystical, consciousness-transforming aspect. In this story, ordinary incidents have the capacity to extend the boundaries of normal consciousness and to introduce exquisite, intense spiritual experiences whose import nevertheless is indeterminate and unstable. This adds to the complexities of the narrator’s inner life, which, ultimately, is the central subject of this story.