Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
An overarching theme in Thomas Wolfe's posthumously-published 1940 novel is that the fleeting moments of our past are the things we sometimes cling to in our minds as the construct of home. Our obsession with the past as a time and place of security is illusive at best. George Webber grapples with the paradox that a sense of rootedness in a place is not the anchor we might like to believe it to be; our life journeys are where we always dwell temporarily.
Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.
Wolfe's novel is also concerned with class division. In both America and Europe, George observes the gulf between the rich and poor, and he finds himself increasingly put off by the vacuousness and immorality of the wealthy elites as he spends time in their world. His disgust with what unchecked capitalism has produced is expressed succinctly in these lines:
At these repeated signs of decadence in a society which had once been the object of his envy and his highest ambition, Webber's face had begun to take on a look of scorn . . . Yes, all these people looked at one another with untelling eyes. Their speech was casual, quick, and witty. But they did not say the things they knew. And they knew everything. They had seen everything. They had accepted everything. And they received every new intelligence now with a cynical and amused look in their untelling eyes. Nothing shocked them anymore. It was the way things were. It was what they had come to expect of life . . . He himself had not yet come to that, he did not want to come to it.
In Europe, George discovers another uncomfortable truth: the barbarism that has arisen in Nazi Germany is simply a recent reminder that mankind's existence is atavistic; humanity has not evolved into a civilized society that uniformly rejects evil and barbarism. This realization is shocking to George and causes him to rethink what he believed about the essential truths of life. He reflects upon what German friends have recounted during Hitler's rise and in the grip of the Third Reich:
Their tales of woe and fear unspeakable gushed forth and beat upon my ears. They told me stories of their friends and relatives who had said unguarded things in public and disappeared without a trace, stories of the Gestapo, stories of neighbours' quarrels and petty personal spite turned into political persecution, stories of concentration camps and pogroms, stories of rich Jews stripped and beaten and robbed of everything they had and then...
(The entire section contains 766 words.)
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