The Problem of Merlin's Pardon in Walker Percy's Lancelot

Article excerpt

Walker Percy's fourth novel, Lancelot, explores its protagonist's descent into a daily rut and his gradual emergence from it. Lancelot Andrewes Lamar narrates the novel from his cell in the Center for Aberrant Behavior, a structural device that allows readers to hear Lance's story as he tells it to his priest-psychiatrist friend Percival. From the beginning of his monologue with Percival, Lance repeatedly asks him if he is in love. On these occasions Lance, the soon-to-be ranting madman in his cell, ironically accuses Percival of being more abstracted than usual and of having something "wrong" with him (4). These brief inquisitions allow Lance to digress into the story ,of his accidental discovery of his wife's infidelity, an event which accrues so much significance for him that he begins to define his own existence in terms of "Before and After ... the moment [he] discovered that [his] wife had been rendered ecstatic, beside herself, by a man on top of her" (15). Yet for all the importance of this event, one half of the adulterous party, Robert Merlin, escapes unscathed from Lance's apocalyptic quest--a mission Lance calls his quest for the Unholy Grail.(1) If, as John Desmond has suggested, Lance is "an unrelenting moralist ... taken to an insane, demonic extreme," why does he choose to spare the life of an adulterous Merlin?

Strangely, critics have all but ignored this pressing problem in Percy's novel Lancelot, choosing instead to concentrate on the author's philosophy as it presents itself in fiction or on the mutual search that Percival embarks upon as he listens to Lance's tale of obsession and murder. The few scholars who do address the problematic nature of Lance's decision about Merlin provide only glosses. The most common explanation offered for Lance's pardoning his wife's former lover is precisely that he is her former lover; since both men have lost Margot because of their impotence, Lance can sympathize with Merlin. Michael Pearson argues that the bond between Lance and Merlin exists because both men fear failure and both have failed with Margot. For William Rodney Allen, both characters are sad men who remember the glory of the past, but his analysis of the novel sweeps past Lance's sparing Merlin by lumping his departure with those of Elgin and Lucy. Likewise, Crowley and Crowley note that Lance shares with Merlin "a sense of perverse fellowship as cuckold" (267-268), but they do not further address Lance's motivation for sparing him. William J. Dowie suggests that Lance sends Merlin away simply because he has "taken a liking to" him, and Lewis Lawson explains it away by reminding readers that Merlin is now impotent. John Bugge first claims plainly enough that Lance and Merlin "are alike" but he continues by arguing that a diabolical Merlin in effect possessed Lance, thus securing his own escape ("Merlin" 40-43). John Edward Hardy asserts that the two characters' sharing the same intellectual interests, having a mutual sense of intellectual superiority, and being jilted by Margot are not enough to justify Lance's deliberate pardon (153). His final argument that Merlin's sense of manners is enough to motivate Merlin's exoneration, however, is still incomplete. While all of these Interpretations have some substantiation in Percy's text, none alone adequately justify Lance's initially surprising decision to pardon Merlin. To understand fully Lance's decision to spare Merlin, readers must consider his developing vision of his life "Before and After" his discovery of Margot's infidelity.

Seeing the cell-shaped "O" blood type on his daughter Siobhan's camp application is the first in a series of events that allows Lance to understand the rut into which his life has fallen, even though he admits, "Only on second sight--and I don't even know why I looked at it again--did it begin to take on a terrific significance" (15). Lance reviews his life at various times through several kinds of apertures, first his daughter's blood type, then his cell window at the Center for Aberrant Behavior, and finally through his monologue to Percival. …