Study Guide

The Layers Themes

  • Transformation

    Big changes are a'comin'! "The Layers" is all about transformations. The speaker describes his cyclical journey through life filled with turns and twists, ups and downs, and lots of new beginnings. Internal (or conscious) shifts take place within the speaker as he makes his way through the external world. Wait for the big realizations in the latter half of the poem. It's like Kafka's The Metamorphosis, but you know, less disgusting.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What obstacles does the speaker have to overcome in order to experience a transformation?
    2. How does the speaker describe changing in the beginning of the poem versus the end of the poem?
    3. Is Kunitz overly obsessed with transformation in this poem?
    4. Why is the speaker so determined to change, anyway?

    Chew on This

    According to "The Layers," personal transformation is not easy to achieve, but it's always possible. So keep at it, gang.

    In "The Layers," the speaker is only able to change after he's dealt with his baggage from the past (and we're not talking suitcases, people).

  • Death

    Sound the death knell but don't get too comfortable. "The Layers" deals with mortality in many indirect (and a few direct) instances. The poem both acknowledges and challenges the idea of finality, or death, in some intriguing ways. The speaker reflects on the deaths of others, and possibly even his own death… so is he speaking from the grave? Is he immortal? Are we all? These are some big questions—the hard, long-answer kind.

    Questions About Death

    1. How does the speaker cope with the loss of his old friends?
    2. Is the speaker dead? No really, what do you think?
    3. What symbols does Kunitz use throughout the poem to signify death?
    4. How does this poem complicate the notion of mortality?

    Chew on This

    The speaker in "The Layers" portrays mortality as transient in nature instead of permanent. So, we've all got that going for us.

    According to the poem, "death" is just a state of mind. (Yeah, this is controversial, but the speaker sure seems keen on the power of the human psyche.)

  • Time

    Like mortality, time has a haunting presence in "The Layers." This speaker has "done time," if you know what we mean (not jail time, but real time). He's meandered through many time periods and he's trying to come to terms with all those life experiences. (It's probably not easy being ancient.) The speaker and time have kind of a love-hate relationship as he continues his travels. He sure likes living (and maybe living forever), but he doesn't like losing things or feeling distant from significant happenings from his past.

    Questions About Time

    1. What does the passing of time tell us about the speaker in this poem?
    2. According to the poem, does time seem to confine and limit us? Why or why not?
    3. How does Kunitz sneak in the theme of time without always making a direct reference to it?
    4. If we could eradicate time altogether, would life be simpler or more complicated? How would the speaker answer that question?

    Chew on This

    In "The Layers," the speaker is able to transcend time through an elevated state of consciousness. Far out.

    Although the speaker in "The Layers" has a complicated relationship with time (put that on your Facebook status, why don't you), he ultimately grows stronger and wiser from it.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    Wisdom? It's like Truth with a capital "T," or a universal insight, right? When it comes to wisdom, this isn't the speaker's first rodeo into the metaphysical domain. "The Layers" is about a guy who's been around the block, over the river, and through the woods… multiple times. He's learned from his elongated past and follows his principles (while interacting with otherworldly forces) to keep on keepin' on. (Learning is a lifelong journey after all, isn't it?)

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Why is wisdom so important to this speaker? What's he want with it, anyway?
    2. How does Kunitz portray, or personify, wisdom in this poem?
    3. What signs are we given that the speaker is growing wiser as opposed to… less wise?
    4. How does the accrual of knowledge appear to shape the speaker?

    Chew on This

    In "The Layers," the key to the speaker's success in the future lies in his ability to obtain and apply knowledge from his past experiences. He should be in for a good run.

    According to "The Layers," gaining insight is the most rewarding pursuit in life. (And here we always thought it was an impressive shoe collection? Hmm.)

  • Isolation

    The speaker in "The Layers" is no stranger to solitude, or feeling isolated from his peers and surroundings. It can be a lonely road for an old soul, or a yogi, or just some retiree getting up in age. In this case, the speaker has witnessed many of his loved ones fall away as he's trekked a course into desolate territory. At times, this gets to him emotionally as he faces some hard choices.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. In what ways does the speaker appear to be a lone wolf?
    2. How has his long life contributed to his isolation?
    3. Does the speaker have any friends left (other than the cloud)? How could this affect him?
    4. What seems to motivate him when he's lost and alone?

    Chew on This

    According to "The Layers," with great wisdom comes great personal sacrifice (the old good news-bad news scenario).

    It's okay to be alone, especially if you become a better person and live forever. (Hey—isn't that the vampire dilemma? Well, maybe not the better person part…)