Excerpted from The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Copyright © 2002 by Pat Conroy. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Pat Conroy Talks About the South, His Mother, and The Prince of Tides
(Taken from a speech Pat Conroy delivered at the annual
American Booksellers Association convention in 1985 )
My mother, southern to the bone, once told me, “All southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’” She raised me up to be a southern writer, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t grow up in that traditional South. The Marine Corps moved us almost every year of my childhood, and always to southern towns close to swamps and the sea. I always came as a visitor; I never spent a single day in a hometown. The children of warriors in our country learn the grace and caution that come from a permanent sense of estrangement. I grew up in twenty versions of the South and was part of none of them. At an early age I began to collect the stories that give the nativeborn a sense of rootedness and place.
My mother thought of my father as half barbarian and half blunt instrument, and she isolated him from his children. When he returned home from work my sister would yell, “Godzilla’s home,” and the seven children would melt into the secret places of whatever house we happened to be living in at the time. He was no match for my mother’s byzantine and remarkable powers of intrigue. Neither were her children. It took me thirty years to realize that I had grown up in my mother’s house and not my father’s. Like him, I had missed the power source.
In 1984, when I was in the middle of writing The Prince of Tides, I drove down to spend two weeks with my mother in a hospital in Augusta, Georgia. She was receiving chemotherapy treatments for the leukemia that would kill her. My mother’s favorite character in a book was Scarlett O’Hara and her favorite actress was Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara. I grew up thinking that my mother was every bit as pretty as Vivien Leigh and that Scarlett on her best day wouldn’t have been a match for my mother. But chemotherapy is not kind to beauty. One moon-filled night I stayed in my mother’s room, to help her through the terrible hours, and she wanted to talk about The Prince of Tides. “I’m in your new book, aren’t I, Pat?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Liar,” she said. “When you wrote The Great Santini you weren’t good enough to write about me. I was far more powerful than your father ever was. You just didn’t see it.”
“I saw it, Mama,” I said. “But you’re right–I wasn’t good enough to write about it.”
“I like to ask you a favor in the new book, Pat. Don’t write about me like this. Make me beautiful. Make me beautiful again.”
I knelt beside my mother’s bed and said in a voice that I barely recognized, “I’ll make you so beautiful, Mama. You made me a writer and I’m going to lift you out of this bed and set you singing and dancing across the pages of my book forever.”
“And after you write about my death,” my mother said with a smile, “I’d like Meryl Streep to play the role in the movie.” My mother was like a whole civilization of women wrapped up in a single comely package. She was complicated, maddening, irreplaceable. I will never be good enough to write about her. In part The Prince of Tides is a love letter to the dark side of my mother.
I don’t think you’d like the portrait, Mama, but wherever you are, I made you beautiful.
1. In the prologue Pat Conroy sets up many of the novel’s themes: his characters’ love of the Low Country and the South; the power Lila Wingo had over her children, who all adored her; their love of the natural world that shaped all three of their futures. In the midst of this idyllic piece of glorious signature Conroy writing, what signals does he give to his readers about the darkness that is to come in this novel?
2. The novel begins when Tom Wingo, a recently fired teacher and coach, married to a successful physician, and father of three, receives a call from his obviously manipulative mother asking him to go to New York to help his twin sister, Savannah, who has once again attempted suicide. His three young daughters had just expressed embarrassment that he, unlike their friends’ fathers, stays home and cooks meals while it is their mother who goes to work. What other event takes place before he leaves that makes him feel a failure, what he calls “a mediocre man”?
3. When Tom appears to be teasing his young daughters, he tells them that there is only one rule of life they must follow: “Never listen to what your parents say. Parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable. It is one of God’s most important laws. . . . Both Mama and I are screwing you up. If we knew how we were doing it we would stop because we adore you. But we’re parents and we can’t help it. . . . We are your enemies.” Are there any examples of good parenting in this novel that would argue against this warning?
4. Pat Conroy willingly admits that his novels are informed to a great degree by his life experiences. The Great Santini was about growing up as the son of a physically violent and abusive Marine fighter pilot. “I created a boy named Ben Meechum and gave him my story,” says Conroy. In The Lords of Discipline he took on his military college, The Citadel, in a book that resulted in a twenty-years-plus feud between the author and his school, which was only recently resolved. In writing The Prince of Tides Conroy attempts to come to terms with his childhood and with the realization that his mother may well have been the more powerful parent and the source behind the self-deception and family secrets that crippled her children. And yet he says in the novel, “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.” Do you believe him when he says this?
5. The Prince of Tides is filled with stories of transformation, for example, his father’s wartime conversion to Catholicism, his sister Savannah’s becoming a New Yorker. Can you name others?
6. The idea of twins has deep roots in literature, from Romulus and Remus in mythology, to Jacob and Esau in the Bible, to the twins in the more recent novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Can you think of other examples in literature? How are Tom and Savannah alike? How are they different?
7. When Tom first encounters Dr. Lowenstein, his sister’s psychiatrist, he is belligerent both to her and in his attitude toward the entire city of New York. Why, do you think, is he so suspicious? Do you feel she acted in the best interests of Savannah by involving her brother in her therapy? Tom is a teacher and Lowenstein is a psychoanalyst. In the end they help each other in ways they might never have predicted. Are the tools or the impulses that create teacher-coaches and therapists similar? How are they different? Does their relationship have anything to say about class issues? Give other examples of problems of communication brought about by class differences.
8. What psychological tools besides denial does Tom use to distance himself from pain?
9. Why, do you feel, does Pat Conroy use flashbacks throughout the novel? Do you find this technique helpful to you as a reader?
10. One might say that the truest example of integrity seems to be exemplified in the character of Luke, the older brother. Do you agree? Why or why not?
11. The natural world is clearly revered by Conroy. Can you find passages about nature that exemplify his power as a writer?
12. Give examples of how Pat Conroy uses animals to advance the plot.
13. Questions are raised regarding the price of gender throughout the novel. For instance, how does Lila treat Savannah differently from her sons? How does Savannah deal with the family’s secrets as opposed to the way her brothers deal with them?
14. Do you think there is such a thing as a southern novel? Is The Prince of Tides a southern novel? If so, what does that mean to you?
15. Who is the Prince of Tides?