Language and Love in Walker Percy's the Second Coming

By Pearson, Michael | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1987 | Go to article overview

Language and Love in Walker Percy's the Second Coming


Pearson, Michael, The Southern Literary Journal


"Sir, she is mortal; But by immortal providence she's mine ... I have received a second life."

Shakespeare, The Tempest

"Their discourse was not very connected, but they were better pleased, for where there is much love there is little eloquence."

Charles Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods"

In a sensitive and perceptive essay in The Southern Review, John W. Stevenson wrote that Percy's fiction is

   a fiction of hope, a fiction of man coming to some sense of his own being.
   It is a discovery that all his protagonists make as the result of their
   searchings, but the discovery is found also in the manner of Percy's style,
   as well as his subject. He is, indeed, the one contemporary writer who
   recovers in his style the poet's special vision: the celebration of
   language and the delight that comes with this discovery. (164)

Stevenson's essay, although written before the publication of The Second Coming, has much to tell about Percy's accomplishments in his fifth novel. Some of Percy's critics have wondered why a writer so conscious of language theory should not be self-conscious or reflexive in the modern manner, but what they have missed is what Stevenson has seen--"it is the way in which he shapes his fiction which defines Percy's view of reality" (165). Style, technique, and theme flow in the same current.

In his novels Percy calls attention to language, how it works, what place it has in recovering being and announcing sovereignty. His style is precise, laconic, and startling--apprehending the inner part of reality, recovering what Hopkins would have called the inscape of things. He uses words to investigate consciousness, to examine how we use words and are used by them. Percy's is not the fiction of Barth or Vonnegut, but certainly there is a reflexiveness in his art, a point where method and motive become identical, the place where his manner of saying becomes what he is saying.

More than in the previous novels, The Second Coming joins technique and theme. Percy's emphasis on consciousness as a "knowing with others" is brilliantly dramatized in the relationship between Will and Allison. Allison herself is the most fully realized of all of Percy's female characters. Kate Cutrer is all susceptibility, Kitty all vapidity; Ellen has a bouncing Presbyterian normality, and Margo is a Southern belle who restores and transforms. None go far beyond the status of serious caricatures. But Allison, named appropriately for the "truthful one," is at once the most eccentric and believable of Percy's women. For the first time in any of his novels, he develops not a single consciousness but two principal characters. He gives a vital, idiosyncratic portrayal of naming, of the intersubjective moment, of a coming to love. Nothing is "offstage"; his themes about language and love are not shadowy or elliptical. What Stevenson called his "fiction of hope" is dramatized rather than understated; it is made striking instead of implicit. In a novel like Lancelot Percy was calling upon his readers to respond to Lance's diatribe, but in a work like The Second Coming he calls upon his readers to see the nature of language, love and faith. In many ways, of course, The Second Coming is typical Percy fare, the images and metaphors reappearing as if his novels constituted a philosophical equivalent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. The themes are familiar, and not only do the characters resemble those from the first four novels, but many of the characters--Will, Kitty, and Sutter--make return appearances. In particular, for those readers who saw Will as a better man than his situation at the end of The Last Gentleman implied, there is a sense that his second coming is a second chance for some things to be set aright.

It is through the union of Will and Allison, through the fine contortions of Allison's speech and Will's ability to translate, that Percy makes The Second Coming appear to be the philosophical love story toward which the first four novels were building. …

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