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

By Coulter, Lauren Sewell | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


Coulter, Lauren Sewell, The Southern Literary Journal


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.

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.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
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.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
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?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
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.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

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.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?