Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Zero’s chaotic structure, brutal language, pathetic characterization, and bizarre plot all point up the major theme of the novel—that the society it depicts is chaotic, brutal, pathetic, and bizarre. The novel portrays the regime’s baleful effects on that society in its devastation of the individual, whether through malnourishment, torture, constant fear, or violent death. The tragedy inherent in this sociopolitical order is underscored by the constant depiction of abnormal behavior and physical deformities, to the point, in fact, that they become the commonplace and the expected. An instance of biting irony comes when José recognizes that a healthy, well-adjusted, normal man who applies for a position in the freak show is indeed the greatest freak of all because of his very wholesomeness.

The specific targets of the author’s criticism are the military rulers’ moral hypocrisy, indiscriminate brutality, and paranoia, which subsequently effect the fabric of society, shaping it to the regime’s mold. There is no philosophical commentary on the absurdity of the human condition in general or the alienation and dehumanization of people in modern society. The macabre, the absurd, and the grotesque in Zero are a clamor of protest against conditions in a specific place and time—conditions in which a few people are responsible for the suffering of many.