Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman

As one of our nation’s greatest satirists, “[Walker] Percy is a writer with a message, concerned to convey a vision,” claims scholar Ralph C. Wood in The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. “His fiction makes a withering critique of what is spiritually inane about contemporary American life, even as it also hints at a way beyond our current malaise. Yet Percy remains an artist rather than a preacher. His Catholic existentialism is couched in literary terms that appeal to the imagination more than the will. Though Percy may seek to revolutionize our way of seeing, he leaves to the church the task of proclaiming and enacting the Gospel of the world’s salvation.”

Since I have previously read Percy’s debut novel and winner of the National Book Award, The Moviegoer (1962), I am interested in further exploring his fiction. My friend, Bryce, and I are undertaking two novels that are connected by the same protagonist.

The Last Gentleman (1966)
Will Barrett is the last gentleman, a twenty-five year old wanderer from the South living in New York City with no plans for the future and detached from his past. The purchase of a telescope one summer day changes his life – for while searching for an elusive peregrine falcon in Central Park, Will accidentally spots a beautiful young woman and falls in love with her. And so begins his quest for home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.

The Second Coming (1980)
Will Barrett, a lonely widower, suffers from a depression so severe that he decides he doesn’t want to continue living. But then he meets Allison, a mental hospital escapee making a new life for herself, living alone in a greenhouse. What follows is by turns touching and zany, tragic and comic, as Will goes in search of proof of God and winds up finding much more.

For The Last Gentleman, I am going to formulate a single question per chapter that is designed to provoke contemplation and conversation. As I continue to read the novel, I will add questions to this blog post. Within brackets, I have written titles for each of the chapters.

Last GentlemanChapter 1 [Central Park]

As Will Barrett uses his newly acquired and costly telescope in Central Park, the narrator says: “Often nowadays people do not know what to do and so live out their lives as if they were waiting for some sign or other” (6).

Particular: How does the telescope function as a sign for Will Barrett?

Universal: What is the relationship between existential disorientation and signs?

To explore this question, consider the following:

  • The etymological origin of sign comes from a Latin word that means “mark” or “token.”
  • The primary denotation of sign is “an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else.”
  • Before Jesus heals an official’s son, he says to the father: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:46-54). Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who demand signs: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:1-4). On his second coming, Jesus warns his disciples: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24).

Chapter 2 [Hospital]

Will Barrett suffers from a “nervous condition” with symptoms that include bouts of déjà vu, “spells of amnesia,” and occasional lapses into fugue states (11-12).

Particular: What does Will Barrett’s nervous condition reveal about his spiritual predicament, and how does it affect his vision of the world? Consider specific examples, such as the hallucination at Nedick’s corner (44-46), the three-month hospitalization for amnesia (56-57), the blackout on the subway ride with Kitty (68-74), the wrong train from Pennsylvania Station (89-91), or the déjà vu of summertime in Central Park (98-101).

Universal: How are body, mind, and spirit related? Is sickness feigned or imagined for the sake of receiving loving attention?

Chapter 3 [Trav-L-Aire]

This chapter records Will Barrett’s adventure on the road from New York City to the Golden Isles of Georgia, where he further enmeshes himself in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Vaught, their children, Kitty and Jamie, and their daughter-in-law, Rita.

Particular: Will has two salient exchanges with Kitty about love, one on “Folly Beach in old Carolina in the moonlight” (164-168) and the other in the camper during a storm (174-180). Kitty awakens Will to the various roles he may play in their relationship: “boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father” (167); fornicator to a whore (178-179), gentleman to a lady (179-180). How do these roles induce a “values crisis” for Will (135-136)?

Universal: What roles are fitting and ill-fitting to romantic love?

Chapter 4 [Castle]

Having returned to his native South, as a companion and tutor to the infirm Jamie, Will Barrett resides with the Vaughts at their “castle fronting on a golf links” (189).

Particular: Early in the novel, we are told about an “alarming symptom” of Will: “He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad” (22). While this symptom appears in various places (46, 174), it is nowhere more obvious than when this Southerner returns to the South:

The South he came home to was different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.

The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, had got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nevertheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be at home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place—in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there. (185-186)

How much of Will’s unhappiness is related to displacement?

Universal: What does it mean for a person to be “at home”?

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