Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

The themes of “Walter Briggs” are revealed mainly through the character of the protagonist and the nature of the conflict with his wife. Beneath the surface of the memory game in the car there is a quiet but strong undercurrent of resentment and jealousy. Jack begins the marital hostilities by remarking that Clare’s comments at the party about Sherman Adams (a controversial figure in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration) were “stupid.” Then, talking about another person at the party, Jack observes that Foxy “loves you so.”

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This comment is followed by a series of exchanges in which Jack remembers attractive physical features of females at the camp, which provoke responses from Clare. He recalls the girl “with the big ears who was lovely,” and then defends her pride in her ears when Clare disparages the girl’s wearing of “those bobbly gold gypsy rings.” Jack also calls to mind a mentally disturbed girl who was “awfully good-looking,” and a woman named Peg Grace who had “huge eyes.” Clare counters with the observation that Peg had a “tiny long nose with the nostrils shaped like water wings” and further remembers that Peg’s boyfriend was sexy in his “tiny black bathing trunks.” Jack then recalls a German kitchen boy “with curly hair he thought was so cute.” Clare, in response, explains, “You didn’t like him because he was always making eyes at me.” Jack says that he really did not like the German kitchen boy because he had beaten him in a broad-jump competition and that he was pleased when the German was, in turn, beaten by someone else.

Jack’s competitive instinct is one reason for the exchanges between Jack and his wife. Early in the story, the author explains that Jack found the memory contest deficient: “A poor game, it lacked the minimal element of competition needed to excite Jack.” In this light, the comments about other women are designed to make the memory game more exciting by provoking Clare to respond. On a deeper level, however, the form that this provocation takes suggests that Jack is indeed quite receptive to the charms of other women and subconsciously, out of a sense of inadequacy, wants to let his wife know of this attraction.

Jack’s sense of inadequacy is also brought out by Clare’s obvious superiority in the memory game. He does not have her talent for accurate and vivid recall, and he believes that he has “made an unsatisfactory showing.” Although he is jealous of “her store of explicit memories,” he is also pleased that she so generously shares with him reminiscences from their mutual past.

In the final scene, after they are in bed and Clare is asleep, Jack’s memory begins to become more precise and intense. Spurred by her statement that the German boy had made eyes at her, he begins to recollect loving details of their early married life: “Slowly this led him to remember how she had been, the green shorts and the brown legs, holding his hand as in the morning they walked to breakfast from their cabin, along a lane that was two dirty paths for the wheels of the jeep.” His memories increase in poignancy: “Her hand, her height had seemed so small, the fact of her waking him so strange.”

Jack finally recalls that he had spent the whole summer, in the half hour between work and dinner, reading Don Quixote de la Mancha in a chair outside their cabin and how he cried at the conclusion when Sancho Panza urges his master to go on another quest, perhaps to find “the Lady Dulcinea under some hedge, stripped of her enchanted rags and fine as any queen.” It is at this point that Jack triumphantly remembers the lost last name of Walter Briggs and says it softly to the sleeping Clare.

This ending, then, represents a triumphant moment of joy for Jack. He has not only scored a small victory in the memory game by recovering the name of Walter Briggs, but also he has achieved something much more substantial. He has been able to recover his early feelings for his wife and the details of their life together in the modest cabin. Moreover, the allusion to Don Quixote de la Mancha suggests another new dimension to their relationship. He now sees Clare as the Lady Dulcinea, a desirable and splendid woman, just as Sancho and his master perceived Dulcinea. Jack experiences a moment of epiphany, a new and deeper awareness about his feelings for his wife. He becomes aware, through the power of memory, of precious hours in his life, which, as the story suggests, come from little things, from commonplace shared experiences.

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