Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315
One of the themes of the novel is xenophobia. Ethan Allen Hawley, the protagonist, resents the immigrants who have knocked him, a Harvard-educated white Protestant, out of his place of privilege. At the beginning of the novel, he asks his wife "Would my great ancestors be proud to know how they produced a goddamn grocery clerk in a goddamn wop store in a town they used to own?" Ethan feels his family's fall from privilege quite acutely, and, motivated in part by his resentment of newcomers who have more money than him, he informs the Department of Immigration about Marullo, his Sicilian boss.
Another theme is Ethan's hopes of recapturing the American Dream. The talisman he inherited from his family symbolizes these dreams. It's a piece of stone that Ethan describes in the following way: "its colors and convolutions and texture changed as my needs changed." He sees his daughter, Ellen, as the inheritor of the talisman and what it stands for, and, at the end of the novel, he is motivated to redeem himself when he finds the talisman in his pocket (after Ellen has put it there). The talisman stands for whatever his dreams are at the moment, and it is forever changing. In the end, it functions as a moral compass and brings him back to what is important to him.
A final theme is that of corruption and ethics. At the beginning of the novel, Ethan is honest, though humble and poor. He allows himself to become corrupted, as he tells the Department of Immigration about his boss (who is in the United States illegally) and also gives his friend Danny money so that Danny will drink and drug himself to death. Ethan does this to get access to Danny's land. At the end of the novel, Ethan is completely corrupted by his attempt to gain riches and must redeem himself.