Critical Essay – Thesis
PAT CONROY: Using Character as a Literary Device – Shaping Gender in a Modern Novel
When a writer breathes life into his characters in a novel she is illuminating those tenets of gender espoused by the culture, and society that she was born into. Gender identity is so ingrained in the writer that sometimes it escapes the conscious mind lying undetected in the form of bias. While at other times it is purposely manipulated on the page to create an identity so unique and refined that it challenges, and changes the reader’s perception of acceptable behavior for men and women. Nowhere in modern literature do stereotypical gender roles clash with modern theories, and evolve more fluently on the page than in a Pat Conroy novel, or memoir. Pat Conroy contrasts the past male and female stereotypes with his new characters, and employs his characters as literary devices to suggest changes in gender roles.
In The Great Santini the antagonist, Lt. Col. Bull Meecham is portrayed as the stereotypical male role model of the 1960s. The name Bull implies a character bulging with masculinity. Bull is portrayed as a man with some sensitivity who loves his family however, his abusive, over aggressive personality is negatively depicted throughout the entire novel as an immutable and destructive force. The family is pulled apart, dissected, and malformed by Bull’s adherence to a strong patriarchal societal structure. Bull is a character built on Conroy’s own father, a marine fighter pilot that demonstrates brutality and power often associated with masculinity. Bull Meecham is a crude brute of a man typical of his time. There is little change in Bull’s character throughout the story. Conroy uses Bull as a device to make the reader abhor the old male stereotype.
Conroy uses action to further define Bull’s character. After Bull’s loss to his seventeen-year-old son in a one-on-one basketball game, he bounces a basketball off Ben’s head as he follows him to his room until the boy breaks down crying (168). The pressure of manhood that is put on maturing boys during this period is both comic and tragic. Crying is a symbol of weakness. Showing emotion is a trait associated with girls, and not boys in their ascension into manhood in the mid-twentieth century. Bull is the great Santini. This character is clearly a symbol of old masculine behavior that Conroy seeks to change. Bull’s death at the end of the novel, even though heroic, is clearly Conroy’s message to the reader that the old model of masculinity is dead. He suggests that without war there is no need for the male sex to act as brutal, insensitive, and against their inherent nature to be compassionate.
Gender is a pervasive theme in a Conroy novel. One character is established as a foil to show the flaws of the past model of behavior, and another character is introduced that symbolizes the suggested change. Ben is Conroy’s literary device to first criticize, and then propose change in gender behaviors. The boy’s attempt to first mimic his father—by wearing the flight jacket, and showing fear that he will probably end up being like him despite his disgust—sets up the scheme. At the moment Ben finally recoils at his father’s barbaric behavior, and he feels sorry for him, his destiny is changed. This is the crux of the story when the boy consciously rejects the established model of manhood, and adopts a new one. Ben shows compassion by forgiving his father. He reveals a trait that the reader recognizes as maturity. This moment in this coming of age novel is the crux of the story and the message in the denouement that Conroy wishes the reader to draw.
Bull’s malicious verbal and physical attacks on his wife, children, and subordinates, show a violent man, unhappy with himself and the world. Bull sets a dark tone. His persona and actions invoke a mood that makes the reader susceptible to a suggested change. Bull’s win at all cost attitude, the suppression of emotion, and brutality in achieving his goals is shown to be destructive, unpleasant and impotent. The established model of male machismo pales when compared to Conroy’s newer scheme—a man with more refined qualities. Midway through The Great Santini Conroy writes:
A transformation had taken place. There was something noble in Spinks’s face … something military; this man Spinks, a gentlemissimo in the land of the jock, rising above himself and  his coaches whistle, and his small office … but before he spoke he picked up a piece of yellow chalk and drew five X’s and O’s up on the board … Spinks’s chalkwork, with its sweeping, serpentine arrows, and carefully crafted letters, was a genuine and delicate art. He had a flawless and very feminine handwriting that seemed detached from the man possessing it. But when he spoke it was in the harsh rhythms of coaches who had once been athletes who had failed in the same arenas they now presided over as adults. (Conroy 166)
By portraying Spinks as amiable, and courageous, Conroy is suggesting the best model for males to follow, one that is sprinkled with feminine qualities, and wrapped in an athletic male physique. The model is similar to the Southern gentleman that Ben’s mother espouses and tries to raise him to emulate in the novel, the same gentle man role instilled within Conroy as a boy by his own Southern-bred mother (Unk., www.biography.com 1-2).
The name, Spinks is not lost on the astute reader. Like any literary device it has a purpose. The name Spinks is symbolic. It is an allusion to the Sphinx, a mythological, feline creature of ancient Egypt with the head of a man, a pharaoh, on the body of a lion. The Sphinx too is a symbol, a religious deity that was a compilation of disparate parts: a lion and a man. Like the Spinx, Coach Spinks is multifaceted. Instead of the physical manifestations embodied in the mythical creature, Conroy’s character is a blend of multiple personality traits associated with the opposite sex. Although Conroy’s new model of masculinity is drafted into several characters, Coach Spinks is Conroy’s vehicle to persuade the impressionable reader to see the benefit of the new model, men unafraid to expose their sensitivity, exercise compassion, and still be seen as men. This model of neo-masculinity arose from Conroy’s own experiences at the Citadel where he found such a man (Conroy, The Boo 30). He describes his new male role model in his first novel, The Boo. A man who could be “stern yet fair”, and “duty bound, yet human”. (35). These same traits he gives to Spinks. Conroy expressly states that a “transformation had taken place”, and he describes Spink’s face as noble and something military to set up a stark comparison to Bull Meecham—a military officer (Santini 135). When done through the perspective of an impressionable, young, male character—Ben Meecham, Conroy’s is suggesting that males have a choice when they mature: to either be brutal, uncompromising, and ineffective like Bull, or fair, compassionate, and amiable as Coach Spinks.
Conroy, himself a product of the binary gender culture that he was born into subconsciously denigrates feminine traits while at the same time lessening their impact on societal catharsis. The author describes Spinks as having “feminine”, artistic handwriting, revealing an inherent gender bias suggesting that only females can have artistic, “serpentine” handwriting (166). The selection by the writer of descriptive words such as delicate, flawless and genuine are attempts to persuade the reader to adopt his new male model. Conroy’s word choices, and diction combined with his signature, lyrical prose strongly suggest that Spinks is a better role model for males in a modern society than Bull Meecham. (166). A feminist critic might even acknowledge that Conroy is attempting to convince a reader that males should not shun, or criticize the more genteel traits associated with femininity (Burns 47-49).
In his published critical analysis, Landon C. Burns analyzes Ben Meecham’s epiphany. When the boy finally reacts to Bull’s insufferable behavior not like his father, but as a compassionate man unafraid to forgive, the external story reaches its climax (Burns 47). In this coming of age novel, Ben rises above the old male model espoused by Bull for the first time in Chapter Twenty-Two of The Great Santini. Ben can no longer hate Bull (47). Ben matures, recognizes the childishness and impotence of his father, and instead of spitting out an obscenity, he says: “I love you Dad”, something Bull Meecham, as a symbol of the old model of maleness would never have admitted aloud (47: 489-90).
The reader comes to the same realization as Conroy’s young, coming-of-age protagonist. He recognizes the flaw of the older behavioral model that Ben is supposed to attain in order to become a man. The reader adopts Conroy’s new model, a man able to forgive, and show compassion a behavior far superior—than being inflexible, insensitive, and unemotional. Conroy’s portrayal of his theme through Ben’s limited third person perspective brings the reader into the same awareness of what reaching maturity for a male should entail. Like Ben, the reader condemns Bull’s anarchistic, brutal, uncompromising machismo behavior, but forgives him recognizing he is a product of his own failed patriarchal culture. When Ben rejects the old stoic model of masculinity, and adopts his own more refined model it is the climax of the external story. Conroy consciously moves the reader to accept his neo-masculine theory. Ben and the reader are drawn to the same conclusion to reject the negative, destructive model of male behavior, and adopt the more sensitive, compassionate one. The reader willingly embraces Conroy’s new male model that appears more compatible to our changing times.
The characteristics the author chooses to integrate in his new male model through his character Spinks are lifted from Conroy’s own real life experiences. While attending the Citadel, Conroy met, Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvisie, a “man who demonstrated a shining, innate sense of mercy and laughter in the dark land of the barracks … Both dutiful and humane, stern and merciful, fierce and infinitely kind …” (Conroy, The Boo, 10). This is the depiction of Coach Spinks lifted from his first memoir describing the neo-man as having the heart of a lion, and the spirit of a lamb is a foreshadowing when he imposes these same, stalwart characteristics in his later characters—like Spinks— (10), and again in Colonel “Bear” Berineau in the Lords of Discipline.
Gender is perception. Perception is illusory and real. It belongs to both the writer as creator, and the reader as receptor. It is honed by centuries of socialization, as well as biology. Conroy reinforces the male and female role model before he breaks them down. He builds his female character Lillian on the memory of his mother, and the women of 1960’s American society. Like all mothers Lillian is aware of her predicament: to prepare her children to live in a patriarchal society (Burns 49). She reinforces the gender roles that define men and woman in a modern world using traditional notions of a patriarchal structure. Before meeting their father after a year of separation from the family away on military assignment she corrects her boys, “[s]tand up straight, Ben and Matt. Shoulders back. Like marines … Girls check your make up, we want to be beautiful for your father” and then directs the girls to kiss their dad while telling the boys only to shake his hand. (Santini 20). Women, particularly mothers, walked a precarious line in the 1960s society. If they did not prepare their children in the proper gender roles designated by society they would be setting their children up to fail. Lillian is in charge of the household, a duty universally assigned to her gender. She directs the men who have come to move the family household goods and tells Ben: “You have to watch movers very closely, son. They are brutes like your father. They are destroyers of beautiful things”(51). Through his character Lillian, Conroy is telling the reader that the current male role model is bad. It destroys things, beautiful things, like fragile belongings, children, and women, everything of which in the minds of both sexes during this period—belong to the dominant male—the patriarch. In order to prepare them for the real world, Lillian is compelled by her gender role to raise her boys to be stoic. Males should not show emotion. She must raise her girls to be restrained, “Ladies grieve in silence. She always has a smile on the outside. She waits until she is alone to express her sorrow” and “a lady knows how to talk. It is not something that is taught. She says nothing that offends or upsets” men, the dominant members of society, and reinforces the myth that “if a woman is not a lady at birth, no amount of money or education can make her one. A lady just is” (51).
Mary Ann is the feminist embodied in a developing fifteen year old girl. She is not quite the beauty her mother is, and therefore is relegated almost genderless in a binary gender culture that emphasizes feminine allure in order to survive. She must be able to compel the attention of men to do her bidding. Conroy crafts Mary Ann with courage and wit to emphasize the disparity between the female roles to the male privilege during this period. He uses several characters to show the fallacy of the old gender paradigms, and introduce a newer one. Bull calls the girls ‘split tails’ (91). He ignores them for the most part leaving their upbringing strictly to their mother. Conroy depicts Mary Ann’s rejection of her assigned role. Despite her intelligence her opportunities are limited. In 1960, a female must depend on an interested male to protect, marry, and care for her.
Lillian is frustrated with her daughter’s cutting tongue and sloppy dress, and reminds her to, “[r]emember that it was me who gave you your love of reading and literature. But I never taught you to flaunt the fact that you are smart … Men find that unattractive” (348) thus, reinforcing the anticipated behavior that perpetuates domineering males, and subservient females, preserving the patriarchal structure through future generations of mothers. Lillian warned her daughter, “it’s best for a woman not to know so much … A woman has one job, to be adorable. Everything else is just icing. Dressing nice to catch a man’s eye is part of the game.” (348).
In Mary Ann’s conversation with her father, Conroy exposes the sad truth of her worth as a female in 1960s society. In Bull’s world a daughter, a girl can be a Meecham in its simplest form showing the dismal future and low self-esteem of females in our culture, and the negative effect it has on the American family, and society in general. (351). At the time of publication in 1976 a reader is quite familiar with this gender paradigm, and the hierarchy of roles determined by anatomical sex, without regard to intelligence, education, or character. Conroy’s characters mirror current behavior revealing problems under the current patriarchal scheme and leaving the reader searching for a better gender model for modern males and females to follow.
In The Lords of Discipline, Conroy displays male roles as flawed under the current system. The novel takes a more sophisticated approach giving the protagonist more depth to his character, a depth garnered from his own experience. Conroy’s alter ego, Will McClean revealed a sensitive side uncharacteristic of males in 1963. In his first memoir, The Boo, Conroy admited that, “throughout his time at the Citadel [he] never qualified in anyone’s mind as a model cadet … to see plebe after plebe fall—betrayed my frail sensibilities” (212). He stated that he: “blended in, assumed a cloak of anonymity, tried to straddle the line beside the abyss and hoped to escape the scarred outlook I saw daily in the faces of the young men who had already been through the system.” (214). Conroy suggests that these roles are not inherent in men, but that they are trained into them. He suggests that men must adhere to a “strong sense of righteousness, and justice”, compassion and fairness in order to redefine their manhood. The Lords of Discipline builds on what Conroy had already come to learn—that men, and woman as different as they are, should not be castigated into an uncompromising niche, designed by society to separate the sexes. Again the author draws from his personal experience.
In his second memoir, The Water is Wide, Conroy contrasts his goals, desires, and characteristics with that of his southern, wife. Although the memoir is more a criticism of post-reconstructionist-South and racism, the critical analysis of the disparate gender roles was evolving that would become prominent themes in Conroy’s later novels. He created cliché characters that epitomized aggressive and passive behaviors between men and women of the time.
In Lords, Conroy suggests that strict adherence to the established masculine paradigm, or code of male honor—to the extent it embraces prurient values in place of more refined traits associated with femininity—can be tragic. The discipline espoused by the citadel code of honor is a metaphor for masculinity. Conroy sets the code out as the standard for the perfect male model, and it becomes the symbol of acceptable masculine behavior, placing honesty, integrity, and loyalty above all else. These traits are a minimum requirement the Knob must achieve before he can become part of the cadre; the same requirement Conroy suggests must be possessed before a boy can become a man. The author suggests through his narrator, and characters that males do not naturally come by these traits. They must be taught to become men. If a male child does not conform to the code he is ostracized. Cadet Poteet is marked for exclusion. He cries in public after being relentlessly hazed by the Cadre. He is barred from entry into the cadre when he deviates from the expected behavior of a man in 1960s society. He is not allowed to progress into that brotherhood reserved for the disciplined few. Only males who hide their true nature and suppress emotion can succeed. In The Lords Conroy depicts men capable of cruel, brutal, and almost inhuman feats against others in order to succeed—under the old male model, sensitive ones are weeded out. Conroy suggests through portrayal of his characters, that men who are brutal, ruthless, and unscrupulous are simply wrong. In using brutal tactics, the Ten violate the code it is created to protect. The characters in the novel willing to show compassion, forgiveness and mercy actually achieve its purpose—and become better men.
A feminist critic would be quick to chastise Conroy for making an effete character the foil. He describes Tradd with effeminate qualities intimating that he is homosexual (another taboo for the model of a real man in 1960’s society). Conroy appears to suggest that too much femininity in a male is not good, and that males should adopt some but not all of the traits associated with females. A feminist would blast Conroy as attempting to create a less woeful model of masculinity, fearful of being associated with homosexuality, and upholding the patriarchal structure that leaves women victims of masculine control. The author presents effeminate features in his antagonist male character that historically depict the female as weak, cunning, and devious, while showing the other male roommates as stalwart, forthright, and courageous. This use of an effete antagonist suggests Conroy’s own inherent gender bias cultivated by a European Christian culture. He uses a feminine-like character to attempt to uphold the traditions of the Citadel and who eventually betrays the circle of friends.
A neo-genderist critic may perceive Tradd’s desire to belong to the man’s club-that kept him out because of his effeminate appearance—is Conroy’s device to separate his new male model from the negativity of an unenlightened public perception of homosexuals. Sexual orientation and gender are often confused, and erroneously considered synonymous. The author uses an effete character to undermine the trust of his neo-male-model circle of friends that leads to the death of Poteet, and later one of the roommates “Pig”—suggesting that for a male to be too feminine is also destructive—is not only homophobic, but misogynistic. Each victim of Tradd’s betrayal would rather die than face the humiliation of not becoming a member of the cadre, Conroy’s symbol of manhood under the old model.
Poteet exclaims to Will when he attempts to throw himself off a building, “You don’t think I am man enough to make it …” (130). Conroy paints a morbid picture of a male who is overly sensitive. He is considered by the old model as flawed, and not worth anything in the society he lives in. The dramatic irony of the novel drives home Conroy’s message when Poteet kills himself, in order to prove his manhood: “they’ll laugh at me If I don’t jump. They think I’m a pussy because I cry easily. I’ve got to prove to them that I have courage too.” (134). Poteet is saved by Pig, but he succeeds in hanging himself later in the infirmary. Disillusioned by Tradd’s betrayal, and the intensity of the hazing, Pig later walks into a train, and ends his own life. Conroy’s message elucidates the concept of male bonding, and suggests that any newer model of masculinity would still require other males’ approval, separate from female acceptance of a more genteel man.
Conroy hammers this point when he reveals the betrayal of Ann Kate, and her mother. Will McLean is the only one who stood up for Ann Kate when she became pregnant. She uses his assistance until the baby is born, but refuses his proposal of marriage. She gives up the child, and stays in California alone rather than marry him. A Marxist view would lead the reader to believe it was because of the disparity in economic or social classes where Will is poor and cannot create an acceptable pedigree from his working class parents (Burns 51) however, a gender analysis sees Will representing a refreshing noveau male model that Ann Kate, and her mother summarily reject, despite its appeal because it redefines their own status, something they are not willing to do. The character “Ann Kate” is symbolic. Her name is stereotypical, traditional, and exclusive to females. Ann Kate represents the system grown fat on the milk of gender repression. Her existence depends upon the established gender paradigm. Men are breadwinners who dominate the females, and women control the households, rear children, and look ‘adorable.’ Ann Kate is attracted to Will because of his sensitivity, a difference not revered under the established male model. The break up is foreshadowed midway through the novel after Will’s character starts evolving. Will asserts that, “Ann Kate liked me much better during this period when my guard was down. So did Tradd. Both found in my vulnerability an essential softness …”, suggesting that when Will began evolving into a new man capable of showing compassion and displaying emotion, it threatened the established norms of a society which Ann Kate and her mother were happily a part, and caused them and Tradd to betray him (Lords 492-94).
Conroy denounces the masculine model as it existed in the 1960’s. He turns his character Pignetti into a vehicle for change. The reader is swept up in the action through the eyes of Will, his conflicted character. When Pignetti takes the walk of shame and he is driven out of the rank of cadets over an honor violation that is purposely made to appear unjust by the author; McLean as the narrator states: “We should have become monstrous men, and our salvation would have lain in the very nature of our monstrousness … we should have vomited out the bile of those four years … and walked as four against two thousand … saying No, no, no, no.” (494). The difficulty and negative impact of defying the established male role model is shown when McClean, Tradd, and Mark attempted to go against what was expected of men of the old system. Will alludes: “but we did nothing; we were boys”. Mark, the strongest one of the group broke into tears, and began to weep. At that defining moment in the novel, a new breed of man was born, one who could weep openly, and kiss another man on the cheek. In another scene of dramatic irony, where the reader knows the consequence of non-conforming to procedure, Pig protects Mark, Tradd, and Will, kisses them each on the cheek, and turns them away from him as required by the code. His act embodies all of the values of the code, infused with the new male traits, compassion, and forgiveness.
When Pig marches into a train the reader is drawn again into Conroy’s message that honor, and pride of the old system is destructive, and needs to change; The climax reveals Conroy’s theory of the destructive nature of the old male guard graphically, he states: “that night the Corps learned something about a different, harsher code of honor. They found him in sections and pieces along the marsh that bordered the trestle. Those few of us who saw his body after his death still become horrified when we try to describe what the train did to him. What the train undid” is most poignant. The implication of what the train did is obvious—it dismembered the physical man. What it undid suggests something more ethereal—disillusionment. (496-98). An emotionally-receptive reader is ready to change his belief when confronted with one of society’s false tenets, and like Will, must choose which code to follow. The pensive reader adopts the new, more sensitive male model demonstrated by Conroy’s alter ego protagonists Ben Meecham, and Will McLean.
The confrontation between Lt. Col. Berineau, Will, and the General, the secret leader of the Ten, a secret group formed to weed out the seemingly unqualified males in the long line of men who have graduated the Citadel, makes the reader ready to receive the writer’s message in the denouement of the story. Conroy’s character device reveals his plan to “write that history”, suggesting he intends to expose machismo hypocrisy, wipe out the old model, and replace it with a new one (544). In Lords, as in Santini, the ability of a young male to cry under extreme duress, or in situations that pique a severe emotional response is an acceptable trait, and the better alternative model to the established one. The code is symbolic. It represents male machismo. The Ten represent the old guard. They use deceit, brutality, and unscrupulous behavior essentially undermining the very code they must uphold in order to attain successful passage. They drive out those who appear to actually live up to the code, but do not look, or at times act the part—they are effete in appearance, or like Poteet display emotions associated with the feminine gender.
In the Prince of Tides, as he did in his prior novels, Conroy used his characters as literary devices to emphasize past instances of female victimization by society, and the callousness of male responses. Lowenstein is at the top of the female food chain, a successful doctor, married to an accomplished musician, and is a mother of a precocious male child, but still is caught in the gender role set by her society. In The Great Santini, Mary Ann tells her brother Ben Meecham that he is likely to follow in their father’s footsteps, suggesting that the role of all males is preordained in this society—as it is for women like herself, plain, unassuming, and relegated to the lesser sex—no matter how intelligent. She is the incarnation of a radical feminist, who shoots spit balls at the back of her father Bull Meecham’s head as he is the symbol of patriarchal society that feminist abhor. Bull Meecham’s physical abuse of his wife, and daughters, his flippant references to them as “split-tails” and outright dismissal of their opinions is an express rejection of male dominated culture, one that should disgust any intelligent reader. The Great Santini delivered Conroy’s litany of wrongs with the old male model. His criticism of it runs rampant throughout the Lords of Discipline, where he again paints a grim picture of a flawed male society. The crushing by the Ten of young men who appear humane, exercise compassion and who show reasonable judgment are portrayed as negative behavior by Conroy. He uses the Ten, a society meant to uphold the code, to show his disapproval of any male model that places superficial traits, and blind loyalty to a corrupt system. In the final confrontation, Conroy’s symbol of old male values, General Durell, and Colonel “Bear” Berineau (a symbol of the new male model Conroy based upon The Boo’s Lt. Col. Courevaise) is not only the climax of the external story, but the culmination of Conroy’s message to the reader, that the new male model is ultimately better, and will succeed. The Prince reflects Tom Wingo as Conroy’s attempt to embody his theory.
Conroy recognizes that an individual’s sexual identity and orientation is as diverse as their personality. He creates a myriad of variant behaviors that society classifies as normal, or deviant—based on its adherence to a binary gender system. Thus, shaping gender in writing is complex. It requires the writer to define the personality of a character so precise that the reader’s perception is aligned not only with societal constructs of acceptable behavior, but the character’s own perception of who and what gender they identify as. In the 1960s, boys were expected to be tougher than girls. Society tolerated women who cried when severely stressed, but not a man. It was a sign of weakness, and the Ten attempted to extinguish any male cadet who showed weakness. Conroy’s use of symbols and characters as literary devices to expose social wrong and introduce a suggested change. This is not unique in literature, and prevalent in all of Conroy’s writings. Gender role criticism in his novels appears to have evolved over time as he, and his writing matured. Tom Wingo, like Ben Meecham, and Will McClean are Conroy alter egos. Cashing in on his own personal experience, Conroy paints Wingo as a coach, and teacher who has had a nervous breakdown. Wingo goes to the aid of his twin sister who is hospitalized in NYC after an attempted suicide.
In The Prince of Tides, Conroy once again presents his character as the product of a domineering, abusive father, and a self-serving social climber mother who pushes the male myth onto her children in order to survive in a patriarchal society. The measure of success built on the old gender model drives his brother Luke to his death, drives his sister Savanah’s many suicide attempts, and causes Tom Wingo to succumb to a nervous breakdown. The epitome of Conroy’s neo-male role model is Tom Wingo. Tom describes himself to Lowenstein as being an ordinary, mediocre man. However in one of the most complex characters he has created, Conroy has given Tom Wingo the most developed persona of the new male model to date. His vulnerability, and compassion lifts off the pages, and the reader is immediately drawn to the honesty of his character. Conroy again uses cliché characters—and a host of eccentric ones—to depict stereotypical male, and female behavior of his time. Henry Wingo, Tom’s father, and even Lowenstein’s husband, like Bull Meecham, and the men of the Ten society at the Citadel portrayed in The Lords of Discipline, are wrought with brutal, malevolent, insufferable characteristics that evoke a dark mood in the reader and a sense of impending doom. These devises not only set the stage for a tragic climax, but set the tone for change. While on a family picnic Henry berates, beats, and emasculates his young son. Tom cried when Savanah struck him unexpectedly. In this scene, and with these words, “ I’m ashamed of you boy … crying when a little girl hits you. That’s disgusting. Boys never cry. Never. No matter what” (117), Conroy solidly describes what is expected of males in this society. He expressly denounces the old model stating: “I’ll never forget my father’s words on that day … I did not understand but I did know I wanted to model myself after my mother … I renounced the part of me that was his, and hated the fact that I was male” (120). Tom’s contempt—and later acquiescence that compelled him to become compliant, eager to please, and mediocre—does little to reduce the reader’s cathartic awareness of the tragedy of the former model even though Tom himself recognizes it, calls himself a feminist, and adapts. The reader is fully aware of Tom’s failure as a man under any theory. He is losing his wife who unashamedly tells him she is having an affair with another doctor, and admits he has difficulty making love to a woman where her face is replaced by that of his mother when he is making love. Tom Wingo is a man afraid to love, grieve, and to show emotion. Tom changes for the better when he redefines himself, and the expectations of what it is to be a male in modern society. In Tom Wingo, Conroy creates the new male model he has been espousing throughout many of his earlier works. However, the Prince of Tides does not end as cleanly as the other novels, instead it establishes a new standard for Tom Wingo, and the reader to define a man—one that is self-fulfilling as Tom states, “You’ve changed my life. I’ve felt like a whole man again. An attractive man. A sensual one … and you made me think I was doing it to help my sister” (673).
Conroy’s female characters also capture the changing role of women in modern society as well. Tom Wingo’s mother claims that she loves being a woman. In dramatic irony Conroy paints his foil—the woman who convinced her children to not tell their father or anyone of the horrific rape that they had suffered, and sets them on a course of self-destruction. He provides depth to her personality. The author has his femme fatal boast that as one of the attractive females she enjoyed having men open doors for her, and she declared: “I’ve always thought women to be far superior to men and I never want to do anything to make a man feel that he could be my equal. Now, please light my cigarette” (526). This solidifies the anti-feminist character. She is the type of mother who is criticized by feminists because she perpetrates the patriarchal paradigm, imposing on future generations, by training her children to fit into it.
Conroy’s creates Lowenstein as a female character with a subtle fragility existing just below the surface. She elucidates a sophisticated modern woman struggling with the currents of social reform that have swept the country since the 1960s. Conroy’s depiction of Lowenstein as a strong female character, and Tom Wingo as sensitive, compassionate, and caring, illuminates the evolution of the gender roles in his novels. It presents his new gender paradigm that he had been prophesizing in his earlier works. His portrayal of Lowenstein as a victim of her patriarchal husband Herbert, whose cruel and brutal ways contrast with Tom Wingo’s ineffective and mediocre existence as a result of his mother’s betrayal, may well suggest that Conroy believes that the evolution of gender equality is not complete—at least to his liking.
South of Broad, Conroy’s epic novel about four seemingly disparate friends and their marriages reveals a less than subtle manipulation of present gender norms by the author. He even presents a reversal of roles for the parents of his alter ego that his own parents played in real life. The protagonist’s mother is a stoic, and a former nun. She shows little emotion, while Leo Bloom King’s father is sensitive, caring and a genteel man—wholly unlike the great Santini—who was modeled after the author’s father. Conroy depicts his alter-ego protagonist as an unattractive, sensitive male, with a strong sense of fairness, righteousness, and integrity. Like Conroy himself and his ultimate male role model, the hero is an athlete, dedicated and fair, and overcomes the warrior type image males had developed into the 1960s—adopting brutality, and blind loyalty at the expense of more humane traits. Again Conroy uses his characters as literary devices to invite change in gender roles in society. His protagonist Leopold Bloom King is based on a character in James Joyce novel Ulysses, symbolizing his non-conformity to the system, and foreshadowing his disillusionment with the Catholic Church as well as the gender bias of society that he portrays as destructive; when the reader learns that his brother committed suicide after being molested by an old respected priest he invites the reader to disregard the old paradigm of piety, and masculinity. Leo’s adherence to a code of silence borne of an archaic male gender role that propels him to hide the identity of the real criminal is dramatic irony and becomes a focus of the story. While the novel encompasses, religious, racist, Marxist, and other social themes, its portrayal of gender issues is poignant. Here, Conroy uses a promiscuous young girl, and her gay brother to build a tragedy that depicts the shamelessness of society to adhere to a binary gender system that perpetrates destruction for anything feminine. Both Sheba and Trevor Poe are depicted as the effeminate victims, and become vehicles for Conroy to show how cultural adherence to preconceived gender roles end in disaster. Trevor is not only a patent homosexual, but is afflicted with AIDS, a disease that makes him a social leper. When he is missing and presumed dead, Sheba enlists her friends—non-stereotypical constructs of the positions they represent in society—Ike, the macho black man, Niles, the red neck, and Leo, our neo-classical male, band together to help find her twin, and to save his life.
In a broader sense, South of Broad could be part of the author’s real peeve, the perpetration of women as chattel, and victims of male violence as it was in his own family. Sheba’s death at the hands of her senile mother could mean that Conroy blames the perpetration of brutal, stoic male gender roles on the mothers who strive to preserve a way of life and attempt to exist within the restrictive patriarchal paradigm that restrains and subjugates women taking their children down with them. The abusive father, who stalked his children and died quietly in a storm, may symbolize the subtlety of changing gender roles in society. Conroy presents a paradox to his new gender model where his characters Sheba and Leo struggle against the established norms and still fail. Leo is a symbol of Conroy’s new gender paradigm for males. Leo’s failure to achieve happiness and marry Molly—the girl of his dreams and a symbol of the female of the past that he had been taught to desire—becomes an indictment of the neo-gender system, or perhaps an admonition that any change of gender roles in this society may be a long process. Other characters like Ike and Betty, Fraser and Niles find happiness. Interestingly, Conroy gives these characters gender equality. He suggests that the gender roles between men and women are improving. Most critics would agree that he is overly opportunistic and manipulative in developing amenable traits in his characters that did not exist during the sixties, seventies, but well into the nineties.
From the brutal tyrant, Bull Meecham, in The Great Santini, to the sadistic father of the Poe children in South of Broad, Conroy continually and symbolically relays his message that the male role model of the past is destructive. Throughout all of Conroy’s novels, his characters, protagonists, and antagonists alike have evolved gender roles that mirror society’s changing attitudes. Although a product of his own cultural biases, Conroy consciously manipulates the behavior patterns between men and women in his world, employing his characters as literary devices to bring about change. His piquant, symbolic characters attempt to persuade the reader that male and female roles in society must change in order for both sexes to be happy. When Tom Wingo says:
“Lowenstein, Lowenstein” (679)— as though speaking her name will revive the memory of when he became a real man in the arms of a modern woman—Conroy reminds the reader that changes in gender roles in this society are not complete, or easily remedied—but is worth striving for.
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—. The Water is Wide. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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—. The Lords of Discipline. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
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—. The Prince of Tides. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Unknown Author. WWW.biography.com. Bio: True Story, Pat Conroy. 2013. A & E