, Research Paper
Search for the Meaning of Life
Will Barrett is the main character in Walker Percy s The Last Gentleman. In addition to finding meaning and purpose to his life, Will must try to make some sense and understand why his father committed suicide in order to resolve his ongoing grief. Suicide survivors experience dramatic shock and trauma and are often left with questions such as why their loved one killed themselves, and what could have been done to prevent the suicide. Unfortunately, the survivors usually cannot find answers to these questions and only end up harming themselves. They end up staying in the shadow of that tragedy for more than one person should. At the tender age of nineteen, Will 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 selfishly committed suicide, leaving himself dead and unable to answer his son s questions. The straw that broke the camels back for Mr. Barrett was when his honor collapsed amidst its moral ambiguities. In the end he was a man of morals but his world had completely failed to stand at the moral attention he demanded. What he wanted was for all gentlemen to accept the burden of being noble and honest people and for there to be a distinction between a gentleman and others. Walker Percy s Ed Barrett states on the night of the suicide, They ve won (Percy 330). The fornicators, bribers, the hypocrites, they were all the enemies of Mr. Ed Barrett but they refused to fight him. They refused to fight him because they were no longer seen as bribers and fornicators, but as just another person. Ed Barrett fails to connect meaningfully with anyone in his life and that also means Will. Ed 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.
The intentional, sudden, and violent nature of Ed Barrett s death left Will feeling abandoned, helpless, and rejected. 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 bottles his feeling of betrayal inside himself 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. The strongest appeal Will could make to his father, out of his longing for his father to love him and accept him, was rejected by his father. Will was left feeling worthless and his self-esteem had taken a turn for the worse. Although he had no knowledge of his father’s intentions, Will suffers from a profound sense of guilt at not stopping his father s suicide. Ed Barrett replies to Will’s plead to wait with the lie, I m not leaving, son (Percy 331). Will s grudge with his father is that he died by his own hand, robbing Will of himself and causing him to search for a substitute father to guide him along that path that his life will take him.
Will Barrett looks to Sutter Vaught as his surrogate father. He feels that 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.
Attracting Will’s attention, he soon begins to discern both the similarities and differences between Sutter and his father, Ed Barrett. 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. Ed Barrett’s lack of communication results in despair and death, whereas with Sutter talking to Will 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. 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. 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 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.
Although the baptism and death of Jamie brings Will and Sutter together, it is the aftermath that reminds of the events that lead to Ed Barrett s suicide. Despite Sutter’s complaining with his brother being christened, he works with Will in completing this task. 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. After Jamie’s death, Sutter mentioned he will be free to complete his suicide stating, 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. It s clear to see that Will is not the same person at this point. 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 finally has begun to identify himself. 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 his father s death, Will felt he didn’t matter to anyone, but Will now realizes he has influence over Sutter. Whenever Will says wait the man waits. 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. It is clear Will is not the same shy, hurt person from the past, but a man who is confidant with a good direction in life. Will Barrett learned that caring for another human being gives life meaning.