This novel shows the Gant family from the point of view of young Eugene, and this is a very large family headed by the father, a maker of tombstones. The first part of the novel deals with Eugene's childhood to the age of twelve. The second part is about his years in school, and the third about his years in college. Through all this, the Gant family stands as the center of the novel, constituting the world in which Eugene develops and to which he responds most directly.
Critical response to the novel tends to center on the autobiographical aspects on the one hand and the philosophical underpinnings of Wolfe's analysis of society and the response of the writer to that society. A related theme is the meaning and form of artistic expression. Richard S. Kennedy addresses the work in terms of characterizations, finding specifically that Wolfe has structured his novel with what Kennedy calls "three separate planes of statement" fused into a single narrative. One narrative is the story of Eugene Gant. A second is the family chronicle within which Eugene's story is set. The larger framework is Wolfe's autobiographical interpretation of life, centering on vitalism, emergent evolution, and creative evolution (Kennedy 127). Walser also finds that the work is autobiographi