, Research Paper
In Search of Meaning
In addition to finding meaning and purpose to his life, Will Barrett in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman must attribute some meaning to his father’s suicide in order to resolve his ongoing grief. Suicide survivors experience dramatic shock and trauma as explained in a compendium of articles in Living With Grief After Sudden Loss. Judith M. Stillion, a contributing suicidology expert, states that “those grieving loss by suicide often are left with questions such as why their loved one killed themselves, and what, if anything, might have been done to prevent the suicide” (50). Questions like these are generally unanswerable, and thus they may prolong the process of grieving and condemn “survivors to live in the shadow of that suicidal death far longer than is healthy” (Stillion 50). As a suicide survivor, Will Barrett at the age of nineteen, not only has the usual identity search of a young man, but he also has a special and time-consuming burden to overcome the heightened feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection caused by his father’s suicide. In the end, Jamie and Sutter Vaught, as adopted family, help Will find meaning in life and resolution with his father’s suicide.
Suicide may be the least forgivable sin of all human betrayals; Ed Barrett arrogantly and selfishly committed suicide, leaving himself dead and unanswerable to his son. As John M. Schwartz states, what finally provoked Mr. Barrett to suicide was, “His dance of honor collapsed amidst its moral ambiguities. At the last, he was a moralist, but his world completely failed to stand at the moral attention he demanded” (117). What he wanted was for all gentlemen to accept the burden of noblesse oblige, and for there to be a distinction between a gentleman and others (Schwartz 117). Walker Percy’s Ed Barrett states on the night of the suicide,”They’ve won” (Percy 330). The fornicators, bribers, takers of bribes, the hypocrites all the enemies of lawyer Ed Barrett, refused to fight against him. They refused to fight him because they were no longer seen as bribers and fornicators, but as everyone else (Schwartz 118). The elder Barrett fails to connect meaningfully with anyone in his life including his son; he tells his son moments before he kills himself, “In the last analysis, you are alone” (Percy 331). Whatever the source of this despair leading to suicide, Will’s father has failed to grasp the most important purpose of life one does not have to save the world or right all the wrongs, but he just has to touch the lives of a few people. Ed Barrett was arrogant and selfish when he did not realize that mattering in his son’s life was enough incentive to live; consequently, Will would live the next part of his life in search of resolution.
The intentional, sudden, and violent nature of Ed Barrett’s death left Will feeling abandoned, helpless, and rejected. As Mark Johnson suggests, the “haunting power” of the suicide scene follows Will around like a ghost from Hades (Johnson 141). Will Barrett is so hurt and confused he does not consciously define his father’s suicide as a personal betrayal, but instead he wants to give his father the benefit of any possible doubt. Will suppresses his feeling of betrayal by blaming the suicide on the time and place his father lived in. Will Barrett says, “I think he was wrong…No, not he but the times. The times were wrong and one looked in the wrong place” (Percy 332). Here Will is making excuses for why his father killed himself, unable to come to the hurtful conclusion that his father betrayed him. As John Edward Hardy writes, Will’s statement “Wait. Don’t leave” (Percy 331) is his final plea to his father, but Ed Barrett still defies his son’s “direct and loving appeal for him to stay” (Hardy 87). The strongest appeal Will could make to his father, “out of his simple love and need,” was refused by his father, leaving Will feeling worthless and damaging his self-esteem (Hardy 87). Like many suicide survivors, Will feels responsible for his father’s death, although he never quite consciously contemplates it (Stillion 43-44). As J. G. Kennedy writes, not knowing his father’s suicidal intentions, Will suffers from a profound sense of guilt at not intervening and surviving the death of his father (221). Ed Barrett replies to Will’s plead to “wait” with the lie, “I’m not leaving, son” (Percy 331). Hardy appropriately states, “It is difficult to imagine anything much harder to live with than the memory of a father who could prate of honor’ right up to the end, and still go to his death lying about his intentions” (Hardy 87). Will’s chief complaint is not that his father died leaving him with an inadequate set of ethics and ideas for the future, but that he died by his own hand, depriving Will of himself and causing him to search for a replacement, which is Sutter Vaught (Hardy 93).
Will Barrett, in his continuing and all-consuming need to overcome the absence of a father, looks to Sutter Vaught as his surrogate father. Will Barrett feels Sutter Vaught is privy to the secret of life and knows things he doesn’t know. Will states that “I have reason to believe you can help me” (Percy 218). He is attracted to Sutter’s perception and honesty, and Will tells Sutter he will believe anything he tells him. For instance, as an experiment to test this hypothesis with Will, Sutter rubs Will’s eye with a handkerchief and tells him he won’t feel anything, even though Will should cringe with pain. The handkerchief hits Will’s eye and he does nothing, and Sutter realizes that whatever he tells Will, he will believe no matter what. Sutter states, “I told you you would not feel the handkerchief, so you didn’t” (Percy 222). Will’s blind obedience and adoration eventually changes as he begins to scrutinize and evaluate Sutter Vaught. After reading Sutter’s journal, Will initially admires Sutter’s prowess with women; nevertheless, Will finally rejects Sutter’s “cynical materialism” (Schwartz 122).
Attracting Will’s attention, he soon begins to discern both the similarities and differences between Sutter and his father, Ed Barrett,. As William Dowie states, both Sutter and Ed Barrett had authoritative positions and both have suicidal dispositions. However, unlike Will’s father, Sutter is willing to talk about suicide (166-7). Ed Barrett’s lack of communication results in despair and death, whereas with Sutter communication, allows for growth, understanding, and connection. In the end this becomes especially apparent with the deathbed scene and its aftermath.
When Will later meets up with Jamie and Sutter in Santa Fe, he “engineers” Jamie’s baptism before his death. This function “is the most compelling evidence for what a remarkable, unusual, and prescient character he is and hence an appropriate interpreter for the reader as well” (Schwartz 127). Jamie Vaught’s deathbed scene brings Will and Sutter together allowing them both to matter in the life of Jamie. Together they share in this very spiritual experience of Jamie’s death and possible salvation. In fact, Joseph Schwartz considers this moving scene “the finest I think in all of Percy’s work” (126). Will had been hired by the Vaught family to come South and act as a companion to Jamie, who is close in age to Will and is dying of cancer. When Jamie and Sutter leave incognito for Santa Fe, Val Vaught, a sister of the brothers, orders Will to depart for Santa Fe to ensure Jamie is baptized before he dies. Will “must physically leave the South and go to Santa Fe, holy faith” (Schwartz 122). Will finds Jamie Vaught, sick with cancer, and Sutter Vaught, sick with cynicism, in the hospital with a Catholic priest. At the deathbed baptism, the priest has difficulty understanding Jamie, and thus Will interprets Jamie’s answers for the priest. For example, Father Boomer asks Jamie if he believes God exists and created him, and Jamie looks at Will to ask “Is that true?” (Percy 403). Jamie surprises Will when Jamie looks to him as an interpreter for the priest. “To the engineer’s dismay, the youth [Jamie] turned to him” (Percy 403). Will has not felt answerable to such profound life questions, yet he recognizes Jamie’s faith and trust in him. Will turns to the priest and says “He wants to know…why should he believe that” (Percy 403-4). The priest then replies, “If it were not true…then I would not be here. That is why I am here, to tell you” (Percy 404). Indeed, a silent recognition permeates the scene; perhaps the priest was sent by God as a messenger with a task. Will not only ends up perhaps saving Jamie’s soul, but he regains a sense of control and importance not experienced with his father.
The baptism and death of Jamie cause Will and Sutter to work together; the aftermath parallels the circumstances which had led to Will’s father’s suicide. Despite Sutter’s seeming annoyance with the baptism of his brother, he indeed works with Will in accomplishing this task (Hardy 91-92). It is Sutter who physically constrains Jamie and hastens the priest to finish when he fears Jamie is dying, making it obvious he too wants his brother baptized. Nevertheless, Sutter briskly dismisses Father Boomer when he offers further help. The priest says, ” If you need me for anything else, I’d be glad to ‘ We won’t,’ said Sutter curtly, managing to embarrass the engineer after all” (Percy 406). Thus this scene shows Will’s greater maturity and perception that Sutter appears to lack. After the baptism is complete, Will “contented himself with wringing the priest’s hand warmly and thanking him twice” (Percy 407). Will certainly must feel a sense of self-worth and some resolution with the grief he has struggled with; in the aftermath scene with Sutter, he reestablishes a new sense of normalcy and purpose, helping to heal the trauma from his father’s suicide.
Will is determined that he will find in Sutter the father who chooses not to die but to live. However, as Lewis A. Lawson states, after Jamie’s death Sutter implied he will be free to complete his suicide (250). He says “If I do outlive Jamie…it will not be by more than two hours” (Percy 389). Therefore, after Jamie dies, a suspicious Will asks Sutter Vaught where he is going and tells him to wait. To detract Sutter, Will asks “What happened back there?” (Percy 407). Sutter responds “Do you have to know what I think before you know what you think?” (Percy 407). Will tells him he does not have to know what Sutter thinks, a definite change in his attitude prior to this scene (Schwartz 127). In the past, Will “had to know everything before he could do anything” (Percy 4). Through his determination and increased confidence, Will weakens Sutter’s resistance. As Sutter gets in his car, Will again tells him to wait. ” Dr. Vaught, I need you. I, Will Barrett ‘ and he actually pointed to himself lest there be a mistake, need you and want you to come back. I need you more than Jamie needed you, Jamie had Val too’ ” (Percy 409). Unlike Will’s unsuccessful appeal for his father to stay, this appeal is authoritative because Will has at last begun to identify himself (Hardy 97). A moment passes between the two, and as Sutter takes off in his Edsel, a final question occurs to Will. “Strength flowed like oil into his muscles and he ran with great joyous ten-foot antelope bounds” (Percy 409). Ever since Will’s father committed suicide, Will has felt he didn’t matter to anyone, but Will now realizes he has influence over Sutter. Will shouts “Wait” and “The Edsel waited for him” (Percy 409). Unlike Ed Barrett, Sutter waits.
Will’s father’s suicide destroyed his sense of normalcy and purpose in life. When Will succeeded in his mission to get Jamie baptized, he not only improved Jamie’s last moments on earth, but he gained some sense of power and control in his own life. Will now knows who he is, and since he feels he mattered in Jamie’s life, he feels he can make a difference in Sutter’s as well. Making himself vulnerable, Will professes his need for Sutter; by waiting, Sutter acknowledges Will’s need as his own reason for living. Though the novel ends in some ambiguity, it is clear Will is not the same timid, hurt person from the past, but a man who is confidant with a sound direction in life. Will Barrett discovered that caring for another gives life meaning.
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