Analysis Of Elmer Gantry Essay, Research Paper
Elmer Gantry is the story of a smooth talking evangelist named, oddly enough, Elmer Gantry. It tells of how his life is almost pure hypocrisy, as he preaches one thing on the pulpit and, almost without exception, goes against his own sermons. The book is set primarily in a series of towns and cities of the Midwest (with a couple short exceptions, as several of the main character’s jobs entail some degree of nationwide travel), and takes place in the decades from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the late 1920’s.
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in a little Minnesota town named Sauk Centre, in 1885. When he graduated from Yale in 1907, he moved to New York and worked for a short time as a freelance writer. After that, he worked as an editor in various places across America. He gave this up after some of his short stories and his first novel, Our Mr. Wren, were published. Later works, Main Street and Babbit greatly increased his standing as a writer. In 1926, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for another book, Arrowsmith, but declined it. In 1930 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for writing, this time accepting it. He continued to write novels, plays, and poetry until 1951, when he fell ill on an extended tour, and died in Rome.
Elmer starts out as a beer swilling, womanizing delinquent attending a Baptist college on a football scholarship He really couldn’t care less about religion. This changes, however, when he attends a Christian revival meeting with his religious mother. He’s caught up in the excitement of the crowd, and “finds God.” He goes on stage saying so, and it turns out Elmer is a gifted orator. He decides, after a short while, to become a preacher instead of a lawyer, as he’d previously been aiming. But he’s unable to curb his impulses. At his first Church, he has an affair with a deacon’s daughter, and is nearly forced into marriage with her. He is later kicked out of the Seminary for getting drunk when he was supposed to be on a job. He gets a job for a time as a salesman, but is smitten by a female evangelist, Sharon Falconer. He joins her, and becomes her lover and partner for several years. When she is killed in a fire, Elmer must again fend for himself. He works briefly in New Thought, then becomes a preacher again. He now becomes a crusader against vice, while he engages in two illicit affairs.
On page 31, the extremely important role of the Church in a child’s upbringing is shown. The Church gave Elmer’s life all its structure. “That pasty white Baptist Church had been the center for all his emotions, save for hell-raising, hunger, sleepiness, and love.” Nearly all the music Elmer ever listened to as a child, he heard in Church. The same went for art, oration, philosophy, and literature. Most of his childhood memories involved the Church in some way. This was relatively common during this time period. A child’s religious upbringing was an inherent part of their entire person.
Page 51 shows another religious aspect of life in this time period. That is, the Revival Meeting. In this passage, it is shown how people were so amazingly emotionally involved at these events. There almost seems to be a mob mentality, as the people swarm around Elmer, attempting to convince him to give himself to God. One woman begins having “shakes”, something resembling a seizure, but with seemingly nothing but the person’s own mind causing it. The mood is contagious, and the agnostic Elmer is, at least for a short time, convinced that he has been saved. And in a real showing of how amazingly on edge these people were, a simple repeated declaration of that fact by Elmer is enough to bring some of them nearly to convulsions of excitement.
Another religious convention of the time was the travelling evangelist. On page 156, Elmer first sees the evangelist Sharon Falconer in this role, and he soon joins her, allowing the reader a good look at how these people worked. Her operation has an almost carnival atmosphere to it. The show is filled with bright colors and loud music. It is stated several times that the people who work with Sharon aren’t much different from professional actors. The mood at these meetings isn’t much different from the above Revival, but the driving force is quite dissimilar. Sharon and her people are pretty much just out for money, and they get it in spades. They take in more from one show than most usual preachers are paid per year. During this time period, traveling shows of this sort were very popular.
Another trait of this society begins on page 374. A former priest named Frank Shallard, who is an agnostic leaning toward atheism, is going to give a speech on whether or not religion impedes learning. The first thing he notices when he arrives at the place he is to speak is that most of the posters advertising it have been defaced. In his hotel room, he receives a threatening note, telling him not to speak. A short while later, he gets a phone call saying the same. However, he goes ahead with it anyway. It can immediately be seen that the people there who agree with him are very few, while there are a large amount of people in the back to heckle him. Before he’s too far into his speech, several large men rush the stage. A man leads him out the back, to a supposed getaway car. Frank realizes too late that the man who “helped” him is actually another person out to punish him for perceived blasphemy. He is forced into the car, and driven out to a rural area, where he is severely assaulted with a whip, permanently disfiguring him and making him blind. This entire section of the book shows that anyone who expressed a difference of opinion with the theological majority of the time was treated quite harshly.
Elmer Gantry is written in chronological order over a span of a couple decades. Other than one reference to Elmer’s youth in the Church, there are no flashbacks to speak of. The chapters are relatively long, but each is divided up into several smaller sections.
Lewis wrote this book almost entirely in a very ironic tone. Some sections (the ending, most noticeably) are practically dripping with sarcasm. The book was very readable, as the language of the time it was written isn’t very far different from today’s.
This book made a very valid historic contribution. As previously mentioned, those who criticized the Church often had some unpleasant repercussions. According to the back cover of the book, Lewis received some threats after Elmer Gantry was published. As such, not many writers want to address the topic. If it weren’t for Lewis, the great hypocrisy involved in much of the religious institution of the times may have gone unrecorded.
Though this book dragged at times, I enjoyed it overall. Reading about Elmer’s flaws is sort of like slowing down to look at a car wreck. On one level, what you’re seeing disgusts you, but you can’t seem to look away. I can honestly say that Gantry is the first literary character I’ve ever actually felt a moment of real dislike for, as if he were a real person. Lewis is quite skilled in capturing just the right amounts of hypocrisy and lack of values in this character that he stops short of being a caricature, and actually seems like a real person albeit, someone you would never want to meet. I would recommend this book, if not for the fact that the author may offend some people with his repeated subtle attacks upon Christianity