Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

This story is in effect a missing chapter from Harriet Doerr’s 1984 novel, Stones for Ibarra. Set during 1960 to 1966, that novel chronicles the Evertons’ move to Ibarra, the diagnosis of Richard’s fatal illness (which is only briefly alluded to in “Way Stations”), and the couple’s increasing acculturation to Mexican life and sense of belonging, ending with Richard’s death and Sara’s departure from Mexico. Both the novel and the short story focus on the themes of fate and chance or accident, intimacy and selfhood, multiculturalism, and the calamity and heroism of everyday life. Doerr uses “Way Stations” to explore the meanings of time and space, the nature of faith, the contrasts between modern or scientific perceptions and syncretic folk beliefs and practices, and most important, the conflicts between human will and divine plan or destiny.

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Communication is an important theme, and, as in the work of Carson McCullers, the ability or inability of characters to communicate and understand is a metaphor for the essential loneliness of the individual and also for the human capacity to empathize with, relate to, and improve the lives of others. The sense of accident or fate and the blending of the secular and the spiritual, rational and magical worldviews, also are central to Doerr’s work. These themes are related to the story’s main metaphor, that of movement or transformation. “Way Stations,” which begins and ends with a train at the station, is filled with images of and references to travel and metaphors of life as a passage or trip with several stages. Death or passing is coupled in these images with rebirth.

The many “way stations” in the story include the train station; Ibarra as a temporary place for Kate to heal from her sorrow; the church as a spiritual way station, with its stations of the cross; and the Evertons’ home as a stopping point for local people passing by. Marriage has proven to be a temporary way station for Steve, while Kate thought of it as a lifelong effort. Kate is identified with the statue of the Virgin Mary, which has been moved from one country to another and then from one chapel to another, and in turn with Columbus and his voyage into the New World. Lourdes is concerned with another form of passage, the spiritual one of Kate and the Evertons’ souls into heaven—in this case, the earth itself is the way station.

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