Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer.
Jack Bolling, or Binx, is a member of a respectable family of soldiers, doctors, and lawyers. He works as a modestly successful stockbroker in his uncle's business. He lives in Gentilly, a middle-class suburb of New Orleans. His life is uneventful, he is a model citizen whose only distractions are affairs with his secretaries and going to films. He sees life with the eyes of a film-goer and regards films as enhanced reality.
Shortly before his thirtieth birthday it occurs to him that his life lacks something important. Similar feelings seem to be shared by Kate, the twenty-five-year old stepdaughter of Binx's aunt Emily Cutrer. Kate suffers periods of nervous depression since the death of her fiancé Lyell in a car accident six years ago. Kate calls this experience her secret, and Binx's experience of the 1951 Orient war his own secret.
Binx believes he is in love with his new secretary Sharon Kincaid. He ostensibly pretends to be disinterested, but seeks to impress her with his capacity to earn money. He takes her out to a business dealing in which he succeeds to make much profit. Nevertheless there seems to be an obstacle in Sharon's boyfriend.
At the same time Binx is affectionate to Kate. Kate is on search as much as he is. Unlike him, Kate occasionally believes she has found what she was looking for only to realize soon afterwards that she has been mistaken. Binx tries to help her. Kate decides to break her engagement with Walter Wade. There is little surprise at her decision, Kate has been whimsical ever since the death of Lyell.
Binx asks Sharon for a date. They drive to the beach and enjoy swimming and drinking beer. In the evening they lodge with Binx's mother. She is now called Smith for she remarried after the death of Binx's father, her first husband. Binx's mother deliberately chose a life of the commonplace. She has little understanding for Binx's search and wishes him to marry Kate and settle.
Binx has several siblings. His favourite is his half-brother Lonnie, a sickly fourteen-year-old boy bound to a wheelchair, who is on search too. Lonnie projects his search into a strict religious practice. For Binx religion is no answer, he is no more than a formal Catholic.
Kate is supposed to have attempted suicide. She explains to Binx that she had no intention to die but rather to escape the oppressive feelings she suffers. She deliberately took more capsules than she usually needs but not enough to kill herself.
The long expected day of Mardi Grass arrives. Kate spontaneously decides to accompany Binx to Chicago where he travels on business. Fittingly to the Mardi Grass atmosphere, Kate feels carnivalesque, for she has received two marriage proposals that day. One from a family member Sam Yerger. Another from Binx. By choosing to accompany Binx to Chicago she proves to favour Binx rather than Sam. Kate explains that in marriage she expects guidance rather than simply love. It turns out that Kate failed to inform her stepmother that she was leaving with Binx. The aunt finds the couple out and on her insistence they return sooner than they intended.
The aunt has a serious talk with Binx. She is both vexed and disappointed with him. Kate promises Binx to come and see him but she fails to do so. Binx desperately focuses on finding Sharon instead. Sharon is not in the office as it is Ash Wednesday and the office is closed. She is neither at home and her room-mate tells Binx she is out with her fiancée Stan Shamoun. Unexpectedly Kate appears and ensures Binx that she intends to stay with him. She is ready to undergo a medical treatment. Binx promises her support.
A year later. Kate and Binx are married. The aunt grows gradually fond of Binx, claiming that his fate was not to be one of the heroes of the family but rather an ordinary fellow. Binx's half-brother Lennie dies. Kate's health improves. Binx is not inclined to say anything more about his search, but the search seems to have been successfully completed.
The story is presented in a strictly non-linear order. The reader learns about the characters, their relationships, and their backgrounds only gradually in trivial social conversations or reminiscences of the first person narrator-protagonist. There is little outward action, the emphasis is on the ideas rather than on the plot. The novel evolves around the issues of existentialism and examines the questions of religion, especially Catholicism.
The setting is emphatically New Orleans. Against this background the novel touches on the sentiments of the American South and contemplates the present arrangement of society versus the old order with wealthy white landowners and black servants. Something of this older state is still preserved, for instance Binx's aunt still has a house run by black servants. The time of the novel is 1961. An important issue is the Korean War, in which Binx participated and was shot in his shoulder. The wound is not only physical but also, and above all, mental.
The main theme is the idea of search. The search is internal rather than physical and is related both to an abstract religious belief and to the more practical question of what to do with one's life to leave something behind. For Binx everyday life is death, he glances life only in occasional manifestations of hatred which he indirectly encounters in controversial newspaper articles. Binx enjoys listening to other people's life mottoes on the radio, but finds out that most people believe in the uniqueness of the individual, which is a concept he sees as non-existent. The conclusion of the novel suggests that Binx has come to terms with the commonplace and learnt to live a satisfying, even if mediocre, life.
(by Marcel Arbeit)
• existentialism arises from our weariness with the stereotypical everyday life and awareness of human mortality
• the only philosophy to deal with the absurd, which springs from our striving despite our knowledge of death
• focuses on the conditions of existence of the individual and his responsibilities, actions, emotions and thoughts
• seeks to define how to achieve a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome and what factors are involved
• concerned with the existential obstacles and distractions of despair, angst, alienation, boredom and absurdity
• existentialism was rooted first in Jewish circles in the 1950s, was associated for instance with Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), also with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud
• introduced to the South by the essayist and novelist Walker Percy (1916–1990) at the beginning of the 1960s
• existentialism was originally associated with left-wing Marxist writers, Percy was however a Roman Catholic
• based his views on the French atheist existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, on the Catholic existentialism of Jacques Maritain and especially on the Danish Catholic pre-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard
• Percy adopts the basic terms from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (1843), contrasting the atheist and believer views
• avoids the existentialist terms ‘estrangement’ and ‘alienation’, prefers Sartre’s term nausea, malady or malaise
• malaise refers to the state of mind which doubts the meaning of existence and is tired of one’s life and oneself
• Kierkegaard describes three means of overcoming malaise, Percy reproduces them in translations or digests
• rotation: experiencing something new beyond the expectation of something new, even a shocking experience
• repetition: promoting an unconscious stereotype to a conscious ritual, including the experiences of déjà vu
• zone crossing: moving from the already known to the yet unknown, either geographically or metaphorically
AuthorWalker Percy. (1916 - 1990).
Full TitleThe Moviegoer.
First PublishedNew York: Knopf, 1961.
Arbeit, Marcel. Americká literatura 3. Přednášky/semináře. ZS 2008/09.
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. (1961). New York: Ivy Books, 1990.