Themes and Meanings
On its most fundamental level, Madden’s story deals with the relationship between historical fact and individual experience. Willis Carr’s difficulty in finding the connection between events in his own life and statements accepted as historical truth dramatizes the problem that concerns Madden. The death of General Sanders is an event either totally separate from Carr’s life or intimately part of it. The alternatives suggest differing philosophical conclusions. If Carr can prove that he was part of the war, that he did kill Sanders, then he can conclude that his actions have meaning and that he has some control over events in his life. If he cannot obtain that assurance, he must conclude that he lives in an absurd universe in which an individual is acted on by events and cannot shape them.
Madden does not provide a clear resolution of the dilemma that his protagonist faces. Carr is aware that there are two competing historical accounts of the death of General Sanders. In the first, the general is shot while, mounted on his white horse, he leads troops along the Kingston Pike. In the second, an English adventurer named Winthrop was mounted on that horse, and the general was shot while standing on a hill overlooking the battle. If the first account is true, the man at whom Carr shot was General Sanders, and he can claim a place in history. If the second account is true, however, Carr has no place in history, even if he was present during the skirmishing around Knoxville in 1863.
“Willis Carr at Bleak House” also has its fighter side. Madden is enjoying the idea of Carr, an irreverent East Tennessee hillman, speaking to the Daughters of the Confederacy and failing to confirm any of the conventional notions about the War Between the States. Carr does not see himself as serving a noble cause; his were Union, not Confederate, sympathies, and he stayed with General Longstreet because he enjoyed shooting people, not because he believed in the Confederacy.