Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

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This half-page-long story was also published as part of Russell Edson’s collection The Very Thing That Happens: Fables and Drawings (1964). The themes that the story presents are much clearer when taken in the context of the whole collection. As is evident from the above synopsis of his tale, Edson is not a fabulist in the traditional sense. His prose poems, as they are sometimes called (a description that he claims to abhor), do feature animals prominently, and they do attempt to convey some sort of lesson. It would be an exaggeration, however, to call them moral messages, as they define an amoral world that is more threatening, dehumanizing, and misanthropic than the world described in Aesop’s classic fables. Instead, Edson uses the experiences of animals and objects to parallel human events as he performs a sort of ontological probing into the nature of this thing called life. Edson’s primary themes here are the unstable arbitrariness of existence and the inanity of endless human attempts to make sense of it, order it, and control it.

Edson’s universe may be irrational, but it is not without meaning. While poking fun at humankind’s sense of superiority and the need to believe in some semblance of control, Edson also pities this human condition and in fact justifies it. After all, without this sense of arbitrariness, there would be no process of logic. That is to say, if everything were cut and dried, orderly and sensible, there would be no need to figure things out, to draw distinctions and conclusions, or to find a niche for oneself in the universe. Self-exploration would go no further than mindless faith.

It is ironic that the search for meaning in life is what is assumed to set human beings apart from other animals. However, it is through this search that human beings are struck by the loneliness, isolation, and meaninglessness of existence and experience such great angst that they ultimately are rendered indecisive, unadventurous, and hopeless. By conflating or interchanging father’s head with the horse’s head, Edson is suggesting that the typically pejorative “horse sense” is not in fact so senseless. Once humanity has embarked on its journey for wisdom and truth, through whatever ontological means, perhaps it should accept its inability to know the truth, or if that truth even exists.

By accepting that its perspective cannot go beyond the arbitrary, random, and chaotic, humanity becomes free to go where its instincts and perceptions lead it—to do what it does and get on with it—like the story’s horse. The human system for knowledge need not be forsaken in order to accept, and does not preclude a simultaneous realization, that any system for knowing will never fully explain the nature and workings of the universe. Things do happen. Father thinks of a horse’s head and he becomes one. There comes a time for acceptance and surrender, which is necessary to struggle through the inherent search for self and meaning in life. This acceptance allows father to break out of the frozen stasis of waking, eating, and sleeping that is his function as a human.

By blurring the distinctions between man and horse, head and ass, heroic and banal, Edson manages to obviate hierarchy. Good and bad become meaningless. The playing field is leveled, and all things—both animate and inanimate—share equal weight. Importance or unimportance thus becomes a matter of perspective. In Edson’s world, everything is contingent on the reference frame, or one’s visual scale. Everything is part of the same reality in a skewed platonic sense. All things are shadows of images of shadows endlessly, so far removed from the absolute that it scarcely matters if the absolute even exists. Human beings are confined by their perspective and their unwillingness to stray beyond the fragile boundaries of their own psyches. This notion explains in part the animal motif, especially that of barnyard animals, in Edson’s work: It offers another perspective. People tend to think of such animals as confined, as one-dimensional, and as extensions of themselves to be used as tools toward human ends. The point is that all things—people, animals, and objects—are part of the same fabric, which weaves the disparate threads of free will, fate, and chance. It is how humans modulate these strands that determines their reality and whether their particular confined perspectives are a comfort or a curse. In this story father pushes against the false boundaries of reality and finds comfort in accepting that although unexplainable things happen, his perspective is limited only by his imagination.