Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787

It would be difficult to find a more traditional symbol of America than the New England family gathered together at Thanksgiving to celebrate physical survival and spiritual renewal. In this case, however, what is in addition intended to be a reaffirmation of the family in the face of the loss of one of its members becomes instead such an occasion for internal competition that it drives young Jason symbolically from the family table.

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On one level, then, the story follows the disintegration of a family as a result of the internal conflicts of its members: competition of egos and lifestyles. On another, broader, level, the theme becomes one of evolution, competition, and survival. Particularly in the light of Ena’s rigid insistence on ritual (no matter how empty) and her subsequent disillusionment (in Hanley, her family, and civilized behavior in general), the American family can be seen as a rather cumbersome cultural institution that must try to compete successfully with the newer and self-indulgent, amorphous, anesthetic culture represented, in the story, by Southern California. Certainly this family seems already stretched to its limits, barely able to accommodate two divorces, a wife and girlfriend under the same roof, erratic electrocardiograms, Yoga, alcohol and drugs, casual sex, and the needless death of a young man.

Even if the family does manage to adapt and survive, its individual members have already begun paying a personal price for change: guilt and a sense of loss. As times and lives continue to evolve from one form into another, the family becomes like the creatures in Benton’s bedtime story, whose eyes grow “sad . . . because they were once something else.” Each of the characters, yearning for a return to simplicity and security, searches for some ritual, formality, or father-confessor, as if some symbolic act might absolve guilt and restore what was lost. Wesley’s death is only the catalyst for his family’s private fears. Divorced Ena wants a world where fate ordains “what’s in the cards,” where people behave in benevolent and predictable ways—all guaranteed to relieve her of the responsibility of real choice: “I would have made pumpkin pie, but the pumpkins disappeared.” Uncle Cal is so afraid of dying that he resorts to an almost superstitious regime of diets, exercises, fads, and devices in an attempt to forestall the inevitable. Olivia retreats from pain and responsibility into her drugs. Benton attempts to return to childhood innocence through little Jason. Elizabeth seduces Nick (whom she sees in the role of a priest) in order, he suspects, to exorcise Wesley’s ghost. Even Nick, as he contemplates the changing relationship between Benton and himself, imagines a phone booth to be a confessional; back in New England, he wishes that he could return to a time before he learned that his father had once wanted to send him away, before he realized that death could be casual and unpredictable, before he found himself using people and burdened with the ensuing guilt.

As the characters struggle helplessly between desire to regain innocence or security and their inability to do so, Ann Beattie offers no clear-cut answer to their dilemma, though she does suggest the paradoxical metaphor of the still life: the composition that remains of what once existed. Over the whole story hangs its title, like a photographer’s caption denoting still-life order and a single, graspable point in time, all the while contrasting sharply with the theme of change or evolution, and with the particular turbulence and conflict of the characters’ lives. Nick expresses the story’s central irony, admitting that he is fascinated by photographs given simple still-life captions when the subject matter is alarming, disturbing, absurd: “Photograph gets a shot of a dwarf running out of a burning hotel and it’s labeled ’New York: 1968.’” He goes on to caption an imagined shot of the capsized boat and floating orange life vests, all that remain of Wesley’s death; “Lake Champlain: 1978.” This image serves both as a colorful arrangement of objects and as evidence of the absurdity and needlessness of Wesley’s death—he should not have been boating in November, and he should have been wearing a life preserver. At the same time, the still-life metaphor becomes, finally, Nick’s attempt to impose order, however arbitrary, on an event that cannot be comfortingly explained using reason; an expression in lieu of any explanation; an attempt to bridge the gap between present and past, between change itself and what cannot be changed. Only Nick (though perhaps Elizabeth as well) has clearly begun to understand something about his own motives in an absurd and transient world, but this growth process allows Wesley’s death to be not completely in vain.

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