Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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The meaning of “The Visitor”—the problem that Russell Banks explores in this story—is expressed in its title; however, violence is an integral component of the ideas of a visitor and of visiting. Although the story tells of a profound experience of one man revisiting a place and moment from his past, the narrator explicitly states that it is violence that makes his visit possible and necessary and that it is violence that makes the man a “visitor.”

It is telling that the adult cannot re-create the details of his beating by his father in the same representative, clear prose that he uses to describe the incidents that preceded the beating—the bar, the drive home, and the escalating argument between his parents. Instead, his account of his father’s violence against him is told with distanced language and an analytical objectivity. He does not explicitly state that his father hit him in the head, slammed him in the ribs, or threw him to the floor; rather, he says: “When you are hit in the head or slammed . . . or thrown . . . by a powerful man.”

Compounding this distance, while at the same time providing a rationale for the story, is the narrator’s analysis and theory of violence: that it produces “white light and heat inside the head”—an “extraordinary immolation . . . worth any price.” An act of violence demands perpetuation and visitation, so that the boy who is beaten will become a man who beats, so that the boy who is beaten will become a man compelled to return to the scenes of his violence, whether he was beaten or he beat someone else there. Violence locks one into the past, into itself. It has made this man a constant visitor of places and of memories.

The necessity of anyone’s return visits and participation in the perpetuation of violence is expressed in significant ways. Just as the narrator’s mother felt compelled to challenge her husband rather than accept his lie, so too the adult narrator is compelled to perform violence. Banks calls violence a “narrative whose primary function is to provide reversal,” so that a weak, victimized boy becomes a strong, violent man.

Illustrating the necessity of the visit, the settings in which the narrator finds himself are more powerful than he, drawing him paradoxically forward into his past. He is compelled; images plunge him into the past, into memory; light and smell affect his body, which seems to know the past and the memory before his mind does. The narrator emphatically insists on this necessity, saying to the reader, “Listen to me: you are locked into that narrative, and no other terms . . . are available.”