My Brother Sam is Dead
Themes, Motifs, Symbols
The Illusion of Glory
Tim recognizes that Sam is remaining in the war for the glory and camaraderie rather than for the principle of it, and after several of his own attempts at glory and adventure, Tim senses that glory is overrated. The sacrifices and risks are too great, as they are in the delivery of Mr. Heron's letter or the trip to Verplancks Point. The so-called glory of adventure has taken away Father and many others, and Tim avoids it, partly because he is younger and must tend the house, and partly because he sees its effects on Sam. In the end, Tim learns that glorying in battle can lead to early death, and avoiding the glory of war can lead to a long, happy life.
The Degeneration of Values During War
Mother repeats many times how war turns men into beasts. She says this, for example, when she hears of Jerry Sanford's death, or of Sam himself stealing cattle to feed his men. She is correct in saying this, and not only in the sense of human cruelty. As the war wears on, the entire source of the conflict fades and everybody becomes an enemy to everyone else. Tim finds solace in neither the Rebels nor the Tories; neither stick to principles or any sort of noble idea other than desperate and efficient murder. Tim never chooses a side, and this is extremely important to the novel in demonstrating that to an unbiased and observant young boy, neither side has stuck to any set of values or done anything particularly admirable that would warrant loyalty. By the end of the story, Tim points out that nobody really cares who wins as long as the war ends soon.
The Clashing Influence of Father and Brother
With the experienced, conservative influence of Father working on one side and the excitable, curious influence of Sam working on the other, Tim spends much of this novel trying to come to terms with their points of view and to find his own point of view through them. This is one of the reasons why the Verplancks trip is so important; it shows the thought process Tim undergoes when he is completely alone, away from these two strong and omnipotent influences. Alone, he considers which person would handle the situation in what way, and how he as his own man ought to handle it.
Foreshadowing is used frequently in this novel. Often, one character warns another of a very specific threat of war and winds up being the one facing that threat and losing to it. Sam professes that one should die for one's cause, and he dies for his cause. He predicts a problem with cattle thieves, and he turns out to be framed for that problem. Father warns Tim of diseases on prison ships, and he himself is the one to die of disease. This works to show that no preparation or wisdom can protect a person during terror-filled and chaotic wartimes. Even careful observation and prediction cannot act as a shield, and Tim himself, the most inexperienced of all and the recipient of so many of these ironic warnings, is the one who actually cannot foretell, yet lives.
The most significant events in this story work in a concert with the weather. Spring, traditionally a time of youth and hope, also sets up spring-lovers for disappointment, for inevitably winter will come. It is April when Sam first delights Tim by returning from college, then fights with Father and leaves for good. Spring the next year gives Tim a chance for some glory of his own in the letter-delivery, but it fails, and he feels puzzled and left out of the war once again. A year later, also in April, the British troops come through, giving Tim an initial feeling of camaraderie with one side. Eventually, though, the troops horrify Tim with their unnecessary cruelty, and later that day, Sam returns. In this novel, spring events are most disappointing because they hold out hope and then dash that hope to the ground.
One of the things Tim most admires about Sam is Sam's ability to succeed in college debates with "telling points" that shake any argument in his favor. These telling points rarely work against Father, who is accustomed to trusting in his own set of rhetoric to get his way, but they never cease to impress Tim. They are a symbol of Sam's scrappiness, and his ability to remain on his toes and combat what attacks him in an easy and graceful manner. When Sam learns that he is going to die, he jokes ruefully that he didn't score enough telling points.
The only significant woman in the story besides Tim's mother, Betsy is very important as a war barometer. She is prohibited from fighting, but overcompensates for this by trying to be as involved as possible in helping Sam and the rebels to win the war. She lingers around the tavern eavesdropping, she wrestles a potentially dangerous letter away from Tim, and finally, when she has lost all hope in the cause, her despair gives us a clue that something horrible is going to happen. When the Rebels and Sam are strong, she supports them fully, and by the very end when she loses her patriotism, it indicates that her cause—Sam's success in the war—will not rise triumphantly again.
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