The main conflict of the novel is Tom vs. society.
The definition of antagonist is the character against whom the protagonist struggles. There is not always an antagonist in every plot. In this novel, there is no clear cut antagonist; however, a cogent argument can be made that a collective group serves as an antagonizing force for Tom. These characters are Henry Wingo, Reese Newbury and Herbert Woodruff. This contention is discussed further in the Overall Analysis section of this booknote.
When Tom tells Susan of Luke’s death.
Tom reunites with his family.
Tom Wingo is a middle-aged man with a wife and three young daughters who has recently lost his job as a high school English teacher and football coach. He learns that his twin sister, Savannah, has attempted suicide yet again. Tom agrees to go to New York City, where Savannah lives, to look after her until she is well again. Before Tom leaves his home in South Carolina, he learns that his wife is having an affair. He is not completely surprised as he has not been very affectionate towards her.
In New York Tom stays at Savannah’s apartment (she is in the hospital). He meets with her psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, and agrees to stay in the city until he has filled Susan in on the ghastly childhood he and Savannah shared. Susan does not think it is a good idea for Tom to visit Savannah for a while since contact with any of her family greatly disturbs her.
Susan and Tom grow close during all the time they spend together talking about Savannah. They are very different people: Susan is a Jewish, wealthy psychiatrist who lives in New York City; Tom is a Catholic teacher who grew up poor in rural South Carolina. Susan and Tom often butt heads, but they develop a relationship of mutual comfort and respect. Susan tells Tom about her shaky marriage and her husband’s affair with another woman. Tom and Susan spend a lot of time together socially as well as professionally. Tom agrees to coach Susan’s difficult teenage son in football.
Tom recounts his sad and horrific childhood for Susan in hopes that it might help Susan better help Savannah. Tom spent his youth on Melrose Island with his mother, father, Luke (his older brother) and Savannah. Their father was a shrimper who drank a lot and pushed his family around. Henry (Tom’s father) beat his wife and his children very frequently. Tom tells Susan many, many stories of their childhood--some funny and endearing and others heartbreaking. Among the worst stories is the tale of how, during his senior year in high school, Tom, his mother and Savannah were each raped by a group of escaped convicts. Luke saved the day by unleashing their pet tiger on the men. Savannah, Tom and Luke killed the men. Their mother made them bury the men and clean their home before their father returned. They were not ever allowed to speak of the incident again.
Tom says the worst thing that happened to their family was Luke’s death. This is the incident that caused Tom to have a nervous breakdown and lose his job. Luke was shot to death when he refused to leave Melrose Island after the government bought the county to build plants for weapons development. Luke hid on the island and caused havoc including blowing up bridges and killing four men. An FBI agent approached Tom and asked him to offer Luke a deal of only a few years in prison in exchange for his cease-fire. Luke did agree to the deal, but when he was on his way to the rendezvous point to surrender, he was shot and killed by a soldier who did not know about the agreement.
Tom and Susan begin an affair. Tom is relieved to finally talk about Luke. During his time in the city, he becomes a new man. He falls in love with life again and owes much of his transformation to Susan. When Tom returns to South Carolina he and his wife reconcile. Savannah recovers from her suicide attempt. At the novel’s conclusion, it appears that despite all that has happened, everyone will be all right.