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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
James’s insistence on taking responsibility for his actions is a major part of his personality. This quality remains constant throughout the book but is put to different, more constructive uses as the story progresses. It is fair to say that James is stubborn, even selfish, as the story opens. He flat-out refuses to allow anyone to help or even befriend him in the beginning stages of his stay at the clinic, which results in a very lonely existence. James seems to see this as a part of the “tough guy” act that he’s apparently been living most of his life. He refuses to abide by the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra to “Let Go and Let God.” As time goes on, this behavior transforms into a relentless sense of personal responsibility. James does not believe in letting someone else shoulder the consequences of what he’s done, so he must make a conscious effort not to use drugs based on his own will. He’s given a chance to blame his condition on both a childhood ear infection and the fact that his family may be genetically predisposed to addiction, but he is reluctant to even use those excuses. In the end, James’s self-reliance settles into a form that allows him to accomplish his goal of being sober for the rest of his life.
Throughout the book, James wanders the halls of the clinic, thinking about how badly he needs to feed himself. This intense hunger obscures all rational thought. In his first few meals at the clinic, he eats uncontrollably, using his fingers to shove the food down his throat. As the book progresses, it’s apparent that James’s need to eat occurs mostly when the Fury (what James calls his anger) is present or in danger of appearing. As James learns to control the Fury, he no longer has to eat as frenetically as he does in the beginning of his stay at the clinic. He also learns that there are other ways of feeding the Fury and his addiction: Lilly satiates it, as does being around his friends and feeling as though he is a part of a family. Toward the end of the book, his gluttony—whether for food, anger, pain, attention, or drugs—abates. As he watches a group of men in his clinic stuffing themselves with a steak and lobster feast, he begins to realize that his intense hunger, a form of addiction, is not unique to himself but also present in other addicts at the clinic.
James’s first recollection of beauty is of his most recent ex-girlfriend, a girl with long blonde hair and “Arctic blue” eyes. She was a student at his college. We never hear much about her, though, except in bits and pieces, and we never even learn her name. At best, we have a very abstract picture of her beauty. She sounds like every man’s image of the perfect woman: tall and blonde. However, Lilly, who James outright proclaims is beautiful enough to make him forget what he wanted to say, is almost a polar opposite of the Girl with the Arctic Eyes. Lilly is scrawny, wears badly fitting clothing, sports scars and a cheap plastic watch on her wrist, and has black hair. Even the two girls’ eye color is nearly in opposition: Lilly’s eyes are watery blue, not a hard, icy blue. However, both are beautiful to James, and both types of beauty have their own unique hold on him.
Likewise, James is struck many times by the beauty of a winter storm, the landscape that’s just outside the clinic doors, and, at one point , his last breakfast at the clinic. In striking contrast to beauty, and its capability to assume the many forms that help James out of various slumps, is ugliness, and its opposite effect on James: seeing Lilly in the ugliness of the crack house reflects a place that James has been and doesn’t want to be in ever again. And seeing an ugly new arrival at the clinic who’s clearly an addict with an ugly attitude only reminds James of the fact that once, not long ago, James could see himself reflected in that very ugliness.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Million Little Pieces!