Lancelot: Percy's Romance

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

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