The dehumanization of the modern American male
This plot examines the life of Tom Wingo and how he has become a cowardly adult who is more concerned with stability than compassion or standing up for his beliefs. Throughout the course of the story we encounter many men who are cruel. These men are, essentially, cowards who feign real masculinity through bullying. The only male who is true to himself is Luke Wingo, Tom’s older brother.
Male chauvinism as masculinity
This theme ties into the larger theme of this plot: The dehumanization of the modern American male. The antagonizing forces of this novel, Henry Wingo, Herbert Woodruff and Reese Newbury act in ways that they believe make them seem like men. These men exert power over those around them through whichever method suits them. Henry is physically abusive of his wife and children. He repeatedly reminds Lila of her position in the family, which is to make his dinner and act as housekeeper. Herbert Woodruff psychologically abuses those around him, particularly his wife and son. He forces Tom into an arena in which Tom cannot possibly compete: a New York City dinner with intellectuals. In this setting Herbert attempts to degrade Tom. Reese Newbury is very similar to Herbert in his methods of torment. We do not see Reese attack his wife; however we do see him demean his son and Tom who are only children. Reese further feigns true manhood by throwing around his money. Each of these men has a son who despises him.
The American South
Throughout this novel the topic of the South is frequently touched upon. The New Yorkers, Susan, Herbert and Savannah (who has lived in the city for many years) think the South is backwards. For Tom and Luke, the South is part of who they are. Tom tells Savannah that the South is soul food for him. Colleton, more than the South, is an integral part of Luke. It appears that while the South may have historically been the place of national embarrassment (slavery, and the Civil War), the idiosyncrasy that occurs in the present-day South can also be found in New York City.
Savannah and Susan frequently discuss how difficult it is to be a woman. Tom claims that he is a feminist but he also tells Susan that it is difficult to be a man. Susan says that her men and female patients have such different perspectives on gender issues. In this novel all of the women are strong in their own way. Sallie is a doctor; Susan is a psychiatrist; Savannah is a poet; Lila leaves her husband. However, each woman is also the victim of a man--Tom cheated on Sallie and is emotionally detached from her, causing her to seek love elsewhere; Susan’s husband is cheating on her, she also seeks love elsewhere; Savannah and Lila fall prey to Henry Wingo who beats them; Savannah and Lila are also raped-- Lila seeks love from another man. Savannah is the only character who does not solve her problem with men by finding another man. However, Savannah repeatedly tries to end her life.
Somber. While there are many light-hearted tales in this novel, the prevailing tone is somber. The basic nature of the plot is serious--the story is about a man trying to rediscover himself as he deals with his broken past. Conroy offers many long and ponderous passages in which Tom considers his past and his present. This somber tone gives Tom and his story credibility.
Pat Conroy was born in 1945 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Prince of Tides appears to be semi-autobiographical as he was the product of an Atlanta beauty and a cruel, abusive father. Conroy spent his childhood moving between military bases because of his father’s career. Conroy attended the Citadel where he was very successful; he graduated in 1967. Conroy became an English teacher and was fired from one school for refusing to administer corporal punishment and disrespecting authority. He was married, but later divorced upon the publication of his painfully truthful novel, The Great Santini (which also resulted in his parents’ divorce).
Conroy moved to Rome in the 1980s, where he continued to write. He now lives in the United States.
The Boo, 1970
The Water is Wide 1972
The Great Santini, 1976
The Lords of Discipline 1980
The Prince of Tides, 1986
Beach Music, 1995
My Losing Season 2002
The Prince of Tides appears to be heavily influenced by Pat Conroy’s own life experiences, as are most of his other novels. He was raised throughout the South; his father was abusive; his mother was beautiful. Conroy, like Tom was born during World War II and had friends die in Vietnam. However, the reader should remember that this is a work of fiction.
This book takes place during the 1980's (the present tense plot, at least). While feminism had been a work in progress since the early seventies, it was much more mainstream and more widely accepted in the 1980's. The 1980's also saw a lot of national dialogue concerning the anesthetization of our society. These themes pervade The Prince of Tides.