Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Reconciliation of Opposites: Excess and Deprivation in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Reconciliation of Opposites: Excess and Deprivation in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel

Article excerpt

Thomas Wolfe is said to have been a man of dichotomies, and his largely autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel draws attention to his fascination with paradoxes. In particular, his central characters all exhibit an inclination toward excess to satisfy an unquenched hunger for contentment. Despite each one's desperate attempts to find what Wolfe describes as "an end to hunger, and the happy land" (507), the family faces deprivation at every turn. These characters occupy an entire canvas. As Hugh Holman describes them, although "They are large in body, appetite, [and] feeling," paradoxically, they are plagued by "disease" and "suffering" (31). The excesses in which W. O., Eliza, and Eugene Gant all indulge and the resulting "lostness" that, despite their individual quests for contentment, is difficult to elude, illustrate Wolfe's penchant for paradox. Each directs passionate energies outward to seek peace, but it is eventually Eugene alone who begins to understand how to reconcile his passionate nature with his perpetual loneliness through self-reflection and artistic expression.

Wolfe's verbosity has been widely criticized, but it has also been recognized as an ingenious technique used to immerse the reader in the fullness of the narrative through what Holman describes as "evocative representation of the physical world through images so startlingly direct that they seem to rub against the reader's raw nerve ends" (3). In other words, Wolfe brings the reader into the experience. Holman further contends that Wolfe's "artistic method was a combination of realistic representation and romantic declaration" and that his total body of work should be so viewed (5). Along a similar line of thought, Joseph Bentz lauds Wolfe's prolixity as a deliberate device to draw the reader into the depth of his characters. In "Reading Thomas Wolfe: The Power of Immersion," Bentz calls attention to chapter 15, which describes in detail the real estate acquisitions and financial advantages Eliza Gant has gained through her obsessiveness. Bentz agrees that Wolfe's style gives a "rich complexity" to the characters and their indulgence in excess (10). He says, "The reader is not simply told about [Eliza's] obsession or given a quick example of it, but is instead immersed in it and experiences it for several detailed paragraphs" (10). This technique also works well to emphasize the contradiction between the characters' passionate pursuit of contentment and its elusiveness. In no other character is this more apparent than in W. O. Gant.

The elder Gant, father to Wolfe's fictional alter ego, is much like the writer himself. He is a man teeming with larger-than-life qualities. Large in stature at six feet four, Gant lives his life to match, with "a rolling tide of rhetoric, a preposterous and comic invective, as formalized as classical epithet ... (Wolfe 7). In the days before Eliza moves to Dixieland, her boardinghouse business venture, W.O. lavishes his "great gusto of living" upon his family (52). Gant's extravagance of character includes a restless streak like that of his father before him. For example, the last journey of his life at age fifty-six takes him to California, a pilgrimage of nine thousand miles. But after traveling for nearly two months, he is likened to a river that is

filled exhaustlessly by life in order to be more richly itself, and this life, with the great purpose of a river, he emptied now into the harbor of his house, the sufficient haven of himself, for whom the gnarled vines wove round him thrice, the earth burgeoned with abundant fruit and blossom, the fire burnt madly. (Wolfe 65)

The flood of relief he feels on returning home signifies that Gant is truly not the "Far-Wanderer" (58), but rather a "great man, and not a singular one, because singularity does not hold life in unyielding devotion to it" (53). The dependability of his family offers a lifeline to which he clings as he glimpses the Jungian shadow that haunts him. …

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