The aim of this study is to investigate the nature of protagonistic transformation in the six novels of Walker Percy. Because Percy’s works of fiction are so notedly open-ended, and because the final spiritual, emotional, and existential condition of the main character so often eludes easy categorization, the task is a tall one, and this perhaps explains why Percy scholars who touch on the subject tend to do so peripherally as a component of a broader analysis. But Percy’s writings, both fiction and non-fiction, pointedly confront “the fate of the individual,” and thus a closer examination of the topic is overdue. Moreover, by exploring the transformations of
Percy’s protagonists, we cultivate a greater understanding of these novels’ enigmatic endings and a deeper sense of their meanings as a whole.
During my research, it became evident that temporal and thematic frameworks guide each of Percy’s main characters in their transformations. The temporal contains three distinct phases for the protagonist. The first is a kind of oblivious existence in which he merely goes through the motions of his life unaware of the possibility of finding import beyond the superficial or material. Next, after being unexpectedly jolted out of his existential languor, the protagonist confronts an unsustainable but critical period of seeking or wandering, a search for meaning which results in the collection of knowledge and experience. The final phase marks the transition into a new life of spiritual awareness, and even if this change is inchoate and hardly perceptible by the final page, it completes the transformation of the character within the confines of the text.
The thematic framework is tripartite as well—although the components occur in no particular sequence in the novels. One component is memory: the protagonist must confront a troubling or even previously unknown element of his past in order to move beyond its limitations into a new life absent the crippling burden of his personal history. Another is humility, namely in the sense that he must learn to put others or God before himself; he must abandon the solipsistic outlook that has characterized his existence heretofore. The final element is sacrament, which performs its greatest role at the end of the novel, serving to seal the transformation of the protagonist into a new understanding of his life and the world around him.
In the chapters that follow, I apply the temporal and thematic frameworks to each of Percy’s novels chronologically, proceeding in this order: The Moviegoer (1961), The Last Gentleman
(1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The
Thanatos Syndrome (1987).
What we ultimately discover about Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, Tom More, and Lancelot Lamar is that they are more dynamic characters than is often presumed and, further, that these novels are more resolved than they are generally given credit for being. (Percy’s two sequels account for there being only four total protagonists.) Of course, endings are only beginnings in
Percy’s fiction, but while we leave these characters at a point of uncertainty at the end of each text, they are undoubtedly better equipped to lead fulfilling, purposeful, spiritual lives, as will be shown. Transformation occurs in these novels, even if ambiguously on the surface, and this capacity for change renders the prevailing sentiment of the books undeniably optimistic, at least in this reader’s eyes. And if we look closely enough, we may at least approach the mystery at the heart of Percy’s fiction that, as his characters also discover, remains necessarily just beyond our reach.