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The novel, Empire Falls, by Richard Russo depicts the life of the townspeople in the town Empire Falls. The town is dilapidated and approaching bankruptcy after the factories, owed by the Whitings, have been closed leaving the boarded up buildings as a symbol of the past. Miss Whiting, the owner of most of the buildings and businesses in the town, controls most of what happens within the towns boarders. Miles Roby is the manager of her grill, the Empire Grill. She has promised his that if he continues to manage the grill, then when she dies she will make Miles the owner. For that reason, he has worked at the grill for 15 years without change. Miles’ brother, David, constantly tries to persuade Miles to move on with his life and pursue a new work, but every time Miles stubbornly rejects the idea. In the novel, Russo develops the themes being afraid of the unknown, living in denial, and trying to escape the past and surroundings.
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Throughout the novel Russo uses the character Miles to relay his theme of fearing the unknown. Miles lives as an “Average Joe” in a rundown town. He has worked the same job for 15 years and even though he is doing it so that eventually he can own the business, once he owns the grill he will not be much better off. He jokes to himself that Miss Whiting is “shrewdly timing the obsolescence of every machine in the restaurantâ€¦ to her own demise” so that her gift of the restaurant to Miles would be as minimized as possible. Even when David suggests a new idea that could help bring more business to the struggling grill, Miles is initially hesitant. Even such a small change to an already struggling business worries Miles and he attempts to reject the change. At the grill, both Jimmy Minty and Walt “The Silver Fox”, often come in and eat. Miles dislikes both of these men; The Silver Fox took his wife from him, but still serves them every time they come in. He dislikes the Silver Fox so much that he often thinks to “grab an ax handle, meet the Silver Fox and stave his head right there in the doorway.” (P. 25) He is always trying to avoid them when they are outside of his restaurant. Every year Miles takes his daughter, Tick, on a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. After this trip Tick confesses that she wants to live there and no longer in Empire Falls. In Martha’s Vineyard there is a bookstore the Miles could have purchased that would have allowed them to live there. David vehemently tries to convince Miles to take this opportunity. However, he refuses. If Miles, who would do anything for Tick, would turn down an opportunity to make her happy, he must have been exceedingly uncomfortable with change. The actions taken by Miles in the novel show the fear of the unknown. Even though he does not like everything about the life he currently lives, everyday he know what he is in for and is not going to be any worse or any better than the day before. If he tries to start a new life in Martha’s Vineyard it is not determined whether his new life will be improved or inferior to the life he currently lives. The fear of not knowing is strong enough to keep Miles and others in the town to take action to change their loves. Russo is able to use dialogue between characters to show the fear of the unknown exhibited by the characters in the novel.
Another theme introduced in this novel is living in denial. The town of Empire Falls is on the edge of collapse, all the factories are closed, and many of the businesses are continuously closing down. Although all of the businesses are collapsing, the townspeople refuse to accept that the town is collapsing as the businesses continue to do. Most the people in the town live in denial that the town is in such poor conditions. Instead of looking up the town at a new future, when the patrons are at the Empire Grill they “gaze down to where the street figuratively and literally dead ended at the mill and factory.” (P. 19) Every fall the citizens buzz about seeing a fancy car at the factories with people wearing suits inspecting the buildings. They are not willing to give up the idea that someone will purchase these factories and help bring the town back to its heyday. People fail to realize that it would be illogical to “create hundreds of jobs, none under twenty dollars an hour in Empire Falls” (P. 46) when they can create these jobs in “Mexico and Thailand of ten dollars a week.” (P. 46) Since they live in denial they convince themselves that they will be able to thrive in the future. They refuse to accept how unlikely an investor will create a textile factory in Central Maine and convince themselves every year that this unlikely occurrence is happening. By using examples of how they live their life and the repetition of the “investor sightings” Russo is showing how people live their life in denial and that in order to improve the future, denial cannot be incorporated.
A third theme discussed in this novel is escaping the past and the surroundings. The novel depicts the ancient Greek Tragic view. This view is the view that life is shaped by three aspects. Part of the life is shaped by a higher power, part by place, family and surroundings, and finally by weaknesses in character. This novel establishes this idea by showing how once a character is born into this life they are unable to escape. Miles was never able to escape his past. Even though his mom did not want Miles to come back from college his connection to his past and family forces him to return while she is sick and eventually traps him back at the Empire Grill. Even Miss Whiting, who runs the town, is still trapped in the past. When she invites Miles into her office he sees a pristine model of the town, view that he has never experienced before. Since he was in the Department of Planning and Development he believed that the model was a picture of an envisioned future; however, when he looks closely at the metal plate he reads “Empire Falls, circa 1959.” (P. 81) This shows how much the town is trapped in the past and that even the department focused on the future idealizes the past. A major part of this novel was to try to determine how much of life is controlled internally and how much is controlled by external aspects. Russo is able to show the connection to the past by having flashbacks to the past.
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Richard Russo is able to use his characters to introduce his ideas about how society is shaped. Until the end of the novel, all of the characters are trapped in a cyclical downward spiral because of their denial of their situation, their unwavering connection to the past, and their refusal to face the unknown. However, at the end of the novel Miles finally gets the motivation to change his life. Russo uses these themes to relay to society that in order to live fully it is necessary to face the unknown and to become free from the past and the family one is born with in order to be live one’s life to its fullest extent.
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