Themes and Meanings
The novel’s chief theme is the meaning of life, or more precisely, the meaning of a life. The outward manifestations of the life of Francis Cornish are very quiet indeed. His main accomplishments scarcely register on the public record, and certainly not as attributable to him. The nature of his clandestine activities, whether espionage or art faking, do not lend themselves to public recognition. At the same time, his accomplishments are great, in their way. “The Marriage at Cana” finds acclaim as a masterpiece. Similarly, his spying, in its small way, assists a winning war effort. Finally, his art collection and philanthropy provide the cornerstones for a national gallery. Yet this greatness lacks the usual measures of success or happiness: friendships, family, progeny, recognition. Davies suggests that Francis is no less great for all that.
A major theme explored here is the influence of early factors in shaping a life. The proverb that provides the title, “What’s bred in the bone will not out of the flesh,” also provides an issue Davies wants to explore. He therefore devotes disproportionate space to Francis’s youthful experiences, scarcely any to his final years.
The novel also explores what it means to be a Canadian in the twentieth century. Francis is a child during World War I, an adult during World War II. Throughout the period, Canada remained a minion of Great Britain. Only in the postwar era, during the time of Francis’s art collecting and philanthropy, did Canada begin to come into its own as a country. His life, then, in all its missteps and successes, mirrors the modern life of his own country.
Finally, Davies asks questions about art and fashion. In particular, he wonders why one must work in the mode of one’s own time. Francis proves to be the greatest Old Master of his century. Yet he lives in the age of cubism and abstract expressionism, and to work in the style of another age will be seen as derivative. When Davies has his characters assert that modern painting cannot fully articulate the subtleties of life, he clearly is speaking also of modern fiction, which he feels can never approach the fullness of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, or Jane Austen.