Inman is in need of absolution from his past but does not know how to find relief. Inman cannot forget the atrocities that he has witnessed, particularly those that occurred in battle at Fredericksburg. Although he tells the blind man some of his war experiences, he does not share details of a recurring dream in which piles of human limbs reform themselves into “monstrous bodies of mismatched parts.” Inman dreads the stare of a cadaver who speaks his name, leaving him to wake up “in a mood as dark as the blackest crow.” In this chapter, the crow symbolizes Inman’s independence, when he throws his hat out of the window as a boy, and it also symbolizes his internal disorder, when it is used as a simile for his dark mood. The crow reappears many times in the novel as an omen of doom, a symbol of independence, and a portent of change.
Inman is a man constantly on the move, a man who wishes to be reunited with his lover and who searches for the solace of human company. Despite his aversion to the “metal face of the age,” Inman battles his own despair. He moves from his bed to the outside world, goes into town, returns to the hospital, and finally passes beyond its confines by stepping through the window. Frazier returns to this theme of crossing boundaries throughout the novel as Inman enters and exits different earthly and spiritual realms. Inman’s flights of imagination and memories of a happier past are powerful tools that he uses to distance himself from the anguish he feels. Inman’s love of Bartram’s Travels, a book that he opens at random and gains comfort from, indicates his profound affinity for the natural world and for the movements of his book’s “lone wanderer” author.
Frazier’s contrasting descriptions of bloody battles and summer vistas underscore Inman’s troubled and divided worldview. Despite his horrific experiences, Inman hopes for a better future. Inman abhors the idea that the soul is weak and mortal since he learned it by “sermon and hymn.” This viewpoint juxtaposes Christian doctrine with a belief system formed from an individual’s own experiences and desires. Inman assimilates or rejects other people’s beliefs—be they the blindman’s, Swimmer’s, or Balis’s—on the basis of whether or not they accord with his personal philosophy. The individual’s evaluation of an idea’s truth is important throughout the novel, as questions of religious and philosophical truth resonate with Inman as he searches for his own spiritual conclusions.
The first chapter is an aggregate of Inman’s memories and experiences. It focuses on Inman’s past, his search for answers, his yearning for a better life. Hope, or the tentative search for hope, is forcefully conveyed in this chapter and will emerge as one of the most powerful themes within the novel.