Buechner Themes

Searching for Meaning

Characters in Buechner’s novels are often seen as struggling to find themselves, searching for something beyond themselves. They are trying to determine some meaning to their lives. Prime examples of such characters include Ansel Gibbs from The Return of Ansel Gibbs, Theodore Nicolet in The Final Beast, and Antonio Parr in The Book of Bebb. As Buechner observes in The Magnificent Defeat, “The storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that life has meaning – that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere.”
As Buechner’s characters search for meaning, the author is careful not to overtly inject his religious views into the story. As Dale Brown explains in The Book of Buechner: “He manages to discuss religious ideas – grace, sin, and spiritual longing – without becoming didactic, preachy, or one-dimensional.” Buechner describes it this way in Now and Then: “Since my ordination I have written consciously as a Christian, as an evangelist, or apologist, even. That does not mean that I preach in my novels, which would make for neither good novels nor good preaching. On the contrary, I lean over backwards not to. I choose as my characters (or out of my dreams do they choose me?) men and women whose feet are as much of clay as mine are, because they are the only people I can begin to understand. As a novelist no less than as a teacher, I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics – woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy – but because to do it any other way would be to be less true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others.”
Buechner’s writing - whether fiction or non-fiction - has reflected an understanding of the deepest chambers of the human soul.  That part of us that knows there is something bigger, more significant than the numbing routines of life. “What we want is always missing," he wrote. "The only way we can be sure that it exists at all is that we miss it, that we are born with a longing for it in our hearts.”

What Others Have to Say

If Frederick Buechner subordinated his nature and chose to write on naughts and nothings, he would still exalt his readers. When he is in representative harmony and writes of the accessibility of God to humanity and of humanity’s agreement with its potential divinity, we, the readers, are lifted up, buoyed up, and promised wholeness.
— Maya Angelou

You don’t have to be in the habit of going to church to listen to such a literary minister; you don’t have to be a believer to be moved by Mr. Buechner’s faith.
— John Irving

With profound intelligence, Buechner’s [work] does what the finest, most appealing literature does: It displays and illumines the seemingly unrelated mysteries of human character and ultimate ideas.
— Annie Dillard, Boston Globe