Themes and Meanings
The story shows on one level the incredible abuse of power. Rich tycoons live in luxury while homeless children are driven to fight for the right to sell newspapers or into prostitution. Labor disputes end in riots. The metaphor for the last abuse of power is when the blood is being taken from poor homeless children to sustain the lives of rich old men, who become true vampires preying on the poor to the last.
Another theme is the abuse of science. In alliance with government and wealth, science has run amuck. Sartorius may arise out of the laboratory of Frankenstein, but it is no mistake that he is heading in the direction of Joseph Mengele and the cold-blooded scientific experiments of the Nazi death camps. Certainly, Doctorow is pointing out that science without any ethical principles is a dangerous force that can take humanity anywhere, from environmental destruction to nuclear holocaust.
In the midst of the elaborate story, Doctorow paints a picture of New York City in 1871. He takes readers through the gaslight, into horse-drawn traffic and the smell of dung, and shows them tramps scavenging for garbage at the dock, vagrant children in tatters warming themselves over a steam grate, and the mob at the exchange. From the rich society lady describing her ensemble to the fights in seamy waterfront taverns, Doctorow wants to paint a picture of the city Edith Wharton left out of her novels. McIlvaine lives in the soul of the city that seems to create itself, where one day there is a mansion in a field and the next a row of houses with street traffic.
Another theme is embodied in the postmodern ambiguity and fragmentation of the narrative. The narrator uses ellipses and dashes to show his hesitation in getting the story down. Characters are not met directly but are embedded in the accounts of other characters. The narrator also uses flash-forwards to take the reader ahead of the story, and he questions his own power of getting all the details straight. The fragmentation and piecing together of characters’ lives from newspaper accounts to documents to witnesses gives a shadowy grasp on characters and adds to the ambiguity of the story.