Stillman's cruelty is apparent from the beginning of the novel. Although he is not a central character, he embodies many of the characteristics that Conrad does not. Stillman is unapologetic, rude, and even nasty; Conrad is quite the opposite. The character of Stillman acts as a type of foil for Conrad.
One of the plot threads in this novel is the breakdown of the marriage between Calvin and Beth. Chapter Four provides some good insight into the communication problems in the marriage and the differences between the two characters. Calvin, we see, is a neurotic worrier. He is always concerned about his son, and he feels particularly protective. Beth does not feel the same way. While she loves her son, she wants to move away from the pain and trauma that accompanied Buck's death. It seems, in fact, as though Beth wants to circumvent the healing process, believing it possible just to move along. Calvin, on the other hand, believes that the family still needs to heal, and while Beth thinks that healing is done best by going on vacation, Calvin thinks it would be better to stay at home and talk about what has happened together as a family. Calvin's need to talk about things in order to heal is a motif that comes up often in the novel, and it is usually a source of tension between him and Beth, who only wants to move on with life and forget the past without dwelling on it. In the middle of this conflict is Conrad, whom both parents love but treat differently.
Indeed, Calvin's concerns come through clearly at the end of Chapter Four. We see that he is really torn over how to act. Calvin believes that he is to blame for what happened, partly because he is supposed to be the authority figure--the responsible one--in the family. Nevertheless, he believes that he cannot tell his wife about these feelings; he is more comfortable telling lies. In Calvin, we see two larger themes that dominate the novel. The first is the problem of communication. Ultimately, Calvin and Beth are driven apart by the lies they tell one another and the problems they will not discuss together. Indeed, Beth refuses to communicate about the past, and Calvin has a tendency only to lie about the past to his wife. The process by which Conrad learns to communicate again is a major plot of the novel. The second is the problem of blame, which plagues Conrad in particular but also Calvin. Although Beth seems largely immune to the issue of blame because she does not dwell on the past, Conrad and Calvin are both bound to their obsession with the past and their inability to avoid blame. Both Calvin and Conrad blame themselves, and one of the main themes of the book is how the two work through the problems caused by blame.