Themes and Meanings

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Since the poem was included in Carver’s last collection of poetry, which he completed in the last months of his life, it is difficult not to see the personal meaning the poem must have had for him. The poem concerns two primary, interrelated themes: the meaning of human suffering and death.

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Both themes are carefully woven into the images of the poem and the experience Carver records. The poet’s ambivalence toward the female (the iron maiden and the companion) may be rooted in personal conflict between Carver and his wife over confronting the mortality of a loved one. Both speakers seem to have been affected by the close resemblance of their game to their own lives as human beings who must die and come to terms with the meaning of death.

At first glance, one is tempted to give the poem a Christian reading. Section 3 does, after all, connect Christ, humanity, and state. The poet also implies that the victim of an execution, perhaps like the victim of a terminal disease, would have sometimes found faith, “light,” or “even acceptance of his fate.” In section 5, the speaker, while acting out the ritual of execution, says he is seeking “whatever sheen or rapture I can grasp to take with me, wherever I’m bound”—in other words, he is seeking a light to explain the mystery of life to him as he confronts his own mortality. Both sections indicate that the speaker is contemplating his own death and searching for something to give his own suffering existence some meaning. Because the poet introduces the idea of religious faith, which was so much easier to believe in during the Middle Ages, the poem may be read as a commentary on postmodern humanity’s need for faith in Christ, or, more broadly, for religious faith.

The poem itself, however, seems to undercut such an interpretation. On the one hand, the poem may concern the need for a reassuring faith that explains human destiny and mortality for both the dying (the speaker) and the living (his companion). On the other hand, the poet indicates that no such explanation is to be found. The images of waking throughout the poem may be read as metaphors for awakening one’s consciousness to the inexplicability of death and human suffering; the poem may thus be suggesting that religious faith is rooted in unrealistic hope.

In several places, Carver uses images of sleeping and waking, and in every case the images of sleeping are associated with attempts to escape from the pain of the moment, and the images of waking are used to bring the victims of execution (those from the past and himself) back to the reality of their own (human) suffering. These images could be interpreted as an ironic commentary on the almost universal assumption that death itself enables one to escape suffering and that sleeping and daydreaming are themselves forms of escape from the pain of everyday existence. Though the poet is seeking this form of escape (saying in section 4 that he “could almost drift off”), his companion will not allow him to do so. Furthermore, though the poet is hoping for a “sheen” or “rapture” to comfort him on his journey into death wherever he is bound, he is apparently unable to discover one.

The poem ends with the recognition that the light he has been seeking is not present. Although escaping the “dungeon” of human life through either death, the imagination, or religious faith may be attractive, no real explanation for the torture and meaning of existence can be found. Nevertheless, the speaker does suggest that the universal and eternal quest for “light” is never completely given up. The two visitors to Kyborg Castle have found that the mystery of human life is never fully illuminated.

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