Lancelot: Percy's Romance

By Johnson, Mark | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1983 | Go to article overview

Lancelot: Percy's Romance


Johnson, Mark, The Southern Literary Journal


Walker Percy's Lancelot has been sharply criticized as an inept novel, but it should be seen as a contemporary romance. (1) As Flannery O'Connor says in "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," "Hawthorne knew his own problems and perhaps anticipated ours when he said he did not write novels, he wrote romances. Today many readers and critics have set up for the novel a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel's scope." According to O'Connor, the writer's "true country" is "what is eternal and absolute," which she insists "covers considerable territory." (2) While Lancelot is not Percy's best book, only reading it properly--as a romance--grants us entry to its true country.

In contrast to the novel, Richard Chase observes, the romance "tends to prefer action to character," presenting two-dimensional characters who tend to be abstract and symbolic and who are frequently in a "deep and narrow, an obsessive, involvement." (3) The first words of Lancelot emphasize the narrowness of Lance's obsessions:

   Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair; I'll sit on the
   cot. No? You prefer to stand by the window? I understand. You like my
   little view. Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can
   see? For the first time I understand how old ladies can sit on their
   porches for years. (p. 3)

Lance later speaks of his room as "nothing but a small empty space with time running through it and a single tiny opening on the world" (p. 107). Lance's obsession with his narrow view, while restricting his range of vision, has the virtue of concentrating his perceptions. On one level, the room is a metaphor for the operation of the romance.

While I cannot develop the idea in this essay, certainly the romance has undergone a radical metamorphosis since the nineteenth century. The distinction between novel and romance is still useful, however, and I would direct the reader to Robert Scholes' insightful discussion of Durrell and Fowles as modern romancers in Fabulation and Metafiction. Citing Borges' statement, "reality is not verbal," Scholes examines the epistemological problems of realism and the consequent return by such authors as Fowles and Barth to the "more fantastic and more philosophical romance." In The Nature of Narrative, he and Robert Kellogg are careful to note that "the novel is not the opposite of romance," and they cite Hawthorne as a pivotal figure in the development of the modern romance in his intentional blurring of the distinction between illustrative and representational art. Fifteen years ago, they observed that just as the novel evolved as a synthesis of empirical and fictional impulses, "the grand dialectic is about to begin again, and ... the novel must yield its place to new forms." (4)

The romance opens up an important avenue for the contemporary writer, notes Chase: "The American imagination, like the New England Puritan mind itself, seems less interested in redemption than in the melodrama of the eternal struggle of good and evil, less interested in incarnation and reconciliation than in alienation and disorder." (5) The Manichaean sensibility which informs the tradition of the American romance is forcefully manifested in Percy's Lancelot. Like earlier American romancers, Percy is using the romance to question his contemporaries' materialistic faith in empirical science and capitalism, and to examine his age's abstraction, its separation of thought from feeling and of body from soul.

Lancelot, of course, does not speak for Walker Percy (a mistake made by a few early reviewers and continuing into some later essays), (6) any more than Chillingworth's is the voice of all wronged husbands. While never denying Hester's sin, Hawthorne's harshest judgment falls on Chillingworth. Percy presents us with a first-person account of a Roger Chillingworth, with some of Ethan Brand for good measure. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Lancelot: Percy's Romance
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.