Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Transformative Power of Breaking Conventions and Habits
Throughout Homecoming, characters either struggle against societal roles, or they break conventions and roles, resulting in relief, understanding, personal advantage, or growth. Dicey lives outside of conventional gender roles: she is a fighter so ferocious that none of her peers dare to fight her. At the very opening of the book, she plays into a policeman's assumption that she is a boy, taking advantage of her unconventional appearance and gaining less persistent attention than she would if he thought she were a girl. Eunice, on the other hand, clings to her habits, and the children's presence in her life upsets those habits greatly. Eunice's primary desire had been to become a nun (which would allow her literally to cloak herself in a habit) and subject herself to a set of religious conventions. Her decision to take the children in, however, is no less born of a sense of her duty than her desire to be a nun. The children see Eunice for what she is—a small and judgmental woman with a constricted view of people who do not fit into her value scheme. Eunice is bound and limited by her adherence to others' expectations of her. In a way, Gram is also bound by conventions and habits. She stood by her husband, according to her marriage vow, even when she found him to be cruel and unbending. Her refusal to forgive herself for her failure of her children and her reluctance to let the Tillerman children into her life also suggest that she adheres to her own assumptions about herself and what she is like. Gram experiences perhaps the greatest emotional transformation in the novel when she gives up her notions about her desires and capabilities and allows her love and growing sense of connection to the children to wash away some of her stubbornness.
Family as Home
When the Tillerman children realize that Momma has left them, they are terrified, not only because they have lost Momma, but also because they are homeless. To them, home consists of both a place and an adult caretaker, both of which serve the purpose of keeping the outside adult world at bay and holding them together. As the children embark on their long and disheartening trek, they come to realize that their home exists in their fierce devotion to each other and their unbending determination to survive and protect each other. When the children reach Bridgeport, they find both a place to live and an adult advocate, but, to their disappointment, these do not provide the sense of personal safety and emotional freedom they longed for. For example, Eunice provides for them but expects gratitude and rigid obedience, and she constantly threatens that the children will be taken away from each other and labeled. As they begin their journey to Crisfield, Dicey gives up her hope for a place and an adult caretaker to hold them together, but she begins to realize that the children have the strength and tenacity to hold the Tillermans together. Her travels also teach her how quickly circumstances change and how easily a safe situation turns into a perilous one. More than anything, the children's hard summer teaches them great flexibility in adapting to new situations. Thus, their own ability to take care of themselves and their deep devotion to each other, forged by the long and harrowing summer, have come to replace the physical space and adult caretaker they so desperately missed at the novel's outset.
The Connection between Freedom and Abandonment
Just as the children's lack of protection from the outside world causes them to forge deep and lasting bonds between each other, the very act of abandonment that opens the novel results also results in personal freedom. Dicey negotiates a delicate situation when she finds the children alone without anyone to protect them. Her first reaction is similar to how she has reacted to all threats her entire life: she closes herself off, she regards all around her with suspicion and mistrust, and she learns to fight. Indeed, often Dicey's suspicions are well grounded and her tenacity rewarded, as both result in them escaping dangerous situations and in their surviving challenges on their own. For example, Dicey has the children earn money by carrying bags, row across a river with no bridges, and leave Eunice's stultifying household on their own. However, the children do not make the mistake of shunning the help and interest of the rest of the world. They accept much-needed help from and find friends in Stewart, Windy, Will, and Claire. The help and warmth of these people make Dicey realize that the initial calamity at the novel's outset has launched them on an amazing journey in which they touch the lives of and are touched by others. Dicey comes to relish the poignancy of change and travel, hellos and goodbyes.
At every juncture in Homecoming, money motivates characters and sets the plot into motion. Momma abandons the children because she can no longer find the money to provide for them. Dicey watches fearfully as their money dwindles and surges with elation and relief when they manage to earn money. Dicey receives money from Momma's car and begins saving in Bridgeport, providing her with a sense of protection and efficacy. She again anxiously watches the money dwindle on the trip to Crisfield, and in Crisfield, Gram explains her own fear that she does not have enough money to support the children. In every case, money is an index for how much power and control over events a character holds: less money leads to increased anxiety, dwindling hope for the future, and constricted options. However, while the children traveling with the circus, Dicey, taking a lesson from the way in which they were unexpectedly and fortuitously saved from grave danger by Will and Claire, learns to let go of her worry over money and trust that, by working hard and maintaining her integrity, she will always be able to provide for herself.
Three characters commit thefts in the space of Homecoming. First, Edie, goaded by Louis, steals money from her father. Next, Sammy steals food and money from park patrons, and then James steals money from Stewart. Each theft has a specific context which gives it a specific character—Edie steals from her father money he might well have spent on her anyway, Sammy steals from a stranger who likely will suffer no great loss from the theft of food and twenty dollars, and James steals twenty dollars from a friend and benefactor, who also will not likely suffer greatly from the loss. Dicey senses that theft, while it benefits them in the short run, will invite trouble in the long run, in the form of attention from and pursuit by the police. Stewart elaborates on her reasons, arguing that the long-term detriment is loss of self- respect. As desperate as the Tillermans are for resources, they gain great personal strength from providing for themselves using honest means. Just as importantly, their honesty allows them to travel with less fear, and gives them a greater likelihood of befriending the people who cross their paths, who also often happen to offer them crucial help. Their honesty, while not so quantifiable as money, acts as a resource that helps them complete their journey safely.
Fighting lurks in the space before the start of the narrative, on the periphery of the narrative, and within the narrative itself. First, Sammy and Dicey have learned to fight skillfully in defense of their family and their sense of pride. Fighting allowed the two children to fend off the threats and taunts of the outside world. Sammy's fighting continues in Bridgeport—though we never see him engaged in a fight, he brings the scratches and scrapes from them home. Sammy's fighting, presumably still going on as an attempt to defend his family and his sense of pride, threatens to undo Eunice's offer to adopt the four children and allow them to remain together. While Sammy's fighting poses an immediate threat to the children's togetherness, it ultimately furthers their ability to stay together, as Eunice's reaction to it makes it patently obvious to Dicey that the children do not belong with the fussy, prissy woman. Finally, Gram and Dicey fight over Sammy's punishment for disobeying Dicey. This fight, again, precipitates an immediate threat to the family's integrity. During the fight, Gram makes it clear that she wants the children to leave. At the same time, the fight gives rise to the late-night conversation in the kitchen between Gram and Dicey, in which Gram tells Dicey of her past and constitutes the most crucial turning point in the relationship between the children and their grandmother. Fights, in a narrative about four children's desperate fight for survival, serve indirectly as means of expressing oneself and communicating.
When Dicey explores the barn in Gram's yard, she finds a sailboat that belonged to her uncle and promises it to herself as a prize if Gram lets them stay. The sailboat symbolizes Dicey's newfound thirst for and appreciation of impermanence and motion, which she discovered most explicitly during her trip across the Chesapeake Bay. Significantly, she takes the sailboat as a prize for finding a home, which is a symbol of permanence and stability. Thus, Dicey realizes that even within the space of a stable household, she is negotiating change. By naming the sailboat as her prize, she attempts to articulate her own duality: she longs both for a stable home and for the new adventure.
When the Tillermans arrive at Gram's, honeysuckle covers her dilapidated farmhouse. While Gram appreciates the tenacity of the plant, James points out that the plant is parasitic and destroys other vegetation. Indeed, the plant has grown into the very screens of the doors. The children, however, begin removing the heavy shroud of honeysuckle from the house, letting in light and working it out of the screens. The honeysuckle symbolizes the stubbornness and solitude in which Gram has cloaked herself for almost her entire life, and the children's attempt to remove it symbolizes their role in her life of catalyzing her own growth and relinquishment of the past.
The Tillermans sing throughout the entirety of Homecoming, and the songs come to symbolize their human connection. First of all, they sing to make themselves feel safe and to remember Momma. As the book progresses, they accept a song about remembrance and friendship from Stewart, one of their most thoughtful benefactors. At Eunice's, the children, as though deprived of sunlight and warmth, do not sing. But at Gram's, their singing not only holds them together, but draws Gram in to the circle they create. Through song, they remember the past and reach out to those around them.
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