In the prologue the narrator tells us he grew up beside the tides in Colleton, South Carolina. He has a brother, Luke, and a twin-sister, Savannah. His mother was a dreamer who always told her children fanciful tales and taught them to love nature. His father was a violent man.
The narrator, Tom Wingo, recalls the magical aspects of his childhood. Tom, Luke and Savannah were deeply involved with nature. They spent much of their time in the tides. Tom also remembers the demonic side of his childhood. He says he tried to forget his childhood for so long, but a single phone call made him remember everything.
At the end of the prologue, Tom recalls visiting Savannah after her second suicide attempt. He says he will tell us the whole story of his family and leave nothing out.
The Prologue of The Prince of Tides encompasses the story’s exposition. The exposition is the part of the plot in which the main character and main problem are introduced (or at least hinted at). We learn this is the story of Tom Wingo and his family; his problem is his dark childhood.
Conroy begins this section with descriptions of an idyllic childhood. Tom’s mother appears doting and fun. He grew up in a beautiful place and had many childhood adventures. However, something very bad happened there. His suggestion of the horrors of his childhood creates an air of mystery.
The chapter opens with a call from Tom’s mother. His wife, Sallie, answers the phone. It is very obvious that Tom does not want to speak with his mother, but Sallie insists that he must: Tom’s mother says something tragic has happened. Tom speaks with his mother, using a false bravado. Tom’s mother says that something terrible has happened and that she would like to come over to Tom’s house. Tom, although unconcerned, says she may come over.
Tom and Sallie have three daughters: Jennifer (age 10), Lucy (age 9) and Chandler (age 7). The family lives on the beach. The girls bring shells that they have collected to the house and engage in lighthearted banter with their father. It is obvious that Tom adores his daughters; they adore him as well. Sallie emerges from the house and tells Tom she has cleaned up for his mother’s visit, because his mother always looks at the messy house in disgust. It becomes apparent that Sallie is a doctor and Tom was a teacher, although he has been fired. Their daughters have difficulty with the family’s unconventional lifestyle in which Tom cooks dinner and Sallie makes more money than Tom.
Lila Wingo, Tom’s mother, arrives. She prefers that her grandchildren call her Lila because “grandma” makes her feel old. She is an exquisite woman, impeccably dressed with very fine features. Lila sits down and tells Sallie and Tom that Savannah, Tom’s sister, has tried to kill herself again. She is currently in a psychiatric hospital in New York. Lila says that it would be too difficult for her to see Savannah. Tom says that he will go.
The conversation turns to Tom’s job search. Lila tells Tom that Sallie cannot be expected to support the family forever. Lila’s husband has offered to set Tom up in business. Tom hates Lila’s husband and will not take help from him. Tom has been working diligently, on his own, to find a job.
That night Tom and Sallie take a walk on the beach. Tom thinks about how he has not touched her in so long. He has been selfish. Sallie tells Tom that he has not been the same since Luke (although she does not explain what happened to Luke). She asks Tom if he still loves her. Tom realizes that she is trying to say something more and asks her what is wrong. She tells Tom she is having an affair with Dr. Cleveland. Tom is devastated. Sallie reminds Tom of the affair he once had with another woman. Sallie tells Tom that she wants him to go to New York because she has to figure out how she feels about him and Dr. Cleveland.
In this chapter we begin to gain a sense of whom the major characters are and what problems these characters are confronting. Through Tom’s conversation with his daughters, we learn that he is outwardly humorous and witty; from his personal thoughts we know he is sad and brooding. Apparently Tom lost his job as a teacher and a coach--he is having difficulty finding another job in South Carolina. Something happened to his brother, Luke, a year before. Since the incident with Luke, which remains unexplained, Tom has not been the same. Tom’s childhood was terrible, which seems odd compared with the magical descriptions of his youth in the Prologue. Tom detests his mother, Lila, who is self-possessed and childish. Tom also learns that his wife is having an affair and believes he is a failure.
In this chapter Tom faces an underlying battle with masculinity. His wife is much more successful than he is; his ego often suffers when his children point out the unconventional nature of their family, in which Tom does the cooking; we learn he has a small penis; Tom fails his wife as a lover. Tom also battles the legacy of his abusive father when he fights the temptation to hit Sallie after learning of her affair.