Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Passion in the Face of Death

In Bel Canto, the proximity of death and suffering makes people love more passionately. We learn that Hosokawa’s love for opera grew in part from his hard life in post–World War II Japan. Simon and Edith Thibault renew their love for each other in what they call a “godforsaken country.” Most centrally, the hostages and the terrorists grow to love one another in the face of death and danger. The characters in Bel Canto must live for the moment, since their situation is uncertain and death could come at any time. They find that under these circumstances, they crave love and friendship. The first time Watanabe and Carmen kiss, they do not make great plans for their future; they talk about the likelihood that they will be separated.

The specter of death also sharpens the characters’ appreciation of beauty and art. The first time Kato plays the piano, he plays “the love and loneliness that each of them felt, that no one had brought himself to speak of.” Coss sings “as if she were trying to save the lives of everyone in the room.”

Patchett suggests that the drone of daily life makes it hard to live passionately. In order to get through the days, people put aside thoughts of loss, vulnerability, and death. They behave calmly and conventionally, and mute the desire to live and love with intensity. In Paris, a city of elegant women, Thibault saw his wife as just one of many elegant women. In Japan, Hosokawa spent most of his day fulfilling his duties as businessman, husband, and father. He shoehorned his passion into the little time he devoted to opera. It takes a hostage crisis to teach the characters in Bel Canto to live and love fully.

The Strangeness of Fate

In the world of Bel Canto, fate exists, and people are at the mercy of destinies they can’t control. In the fifth chapter of the novel, we learn that Father Arguedas is “only just beginning to see the full extent to which it was his destiny to follow, to walk blindly into fates he could never understand.” Like Arguedas, Watanabe marvels at the strangeness of fate. It seems almost impossible that he, a highly educated and well-traveled professional from Japan, would meet Carmen, a terrorist from a remote village in Latin America. But not only do Watanabe and Carmen meet, they fall in love. Watanabe often thinks about how strange it is that they should have found each other. Thibault, similarly, is amazed by the unexpected twists in his marriage. First he rediscovers his love for his wife, and then he loses her company after being taken captive.

The Basic Human Impulse Toward Civilization

Many novels explore humans’ base impulses toward violence and power. Novels like The Lord of the Flies suggest that our darkest impulses lurk just beneath the surface and will spring out if given the chance. In Bel Canto, Patchett suggests just the opposite: that our strongest impulses are not barbaric, but civilizing. At the beginning of the novel, the characters are caught up in daily struggles for fame, for money, for power. But once captivity removes these struggles, people gravitate toward art and culture. The hostages and the terrorists read, sing, learn languages, cook, watch TV, play chess, play sports, garden, and fall in love.