Other Voices, Other Rooms Essay, Research Paper
American literature in the thirties and forties, was dominated by social consciousness. The preferred fiction was sociological prose, much of it naturalistic. Thus, when Other Voices, Other Rooms was published soon after World War II, it was criticized as being out of the main stream. Within a decade, however, as other young writers gained renown, it became apparent that Truman Capote’s novel was a piece in a new pattern of fiction, one that was described by terms such as narcissistic, grotesque, symbolic, and aesthetic. However, some reviewers dismissed Capote’s very different style of fiction, for although they were very accustomed to the fact that most southern writers used gothic elements, Capote’s work did not seem familiar. Unlike Faulkner and Tate, Capote was not concerned with the popular themes of gothic literature (Hendin 103). The destruction of a religion, the downfall of a class, and the decay of a family were popular gothic themes which Capote ventured away from (Hendin 103). Undeniably, Other Voices, Other Rooms belongs to the Southern gothic mode, but is much more than baroque fiction. The novelist has combined elements of gothicism with both a southern setting and southern characters. The work has elements of mystery and suspense, terror and horror, heavily textured description, strange episodes and people, and psychological and symbolic elements characteristic of gothic literature. The overt action of the novel seems simple enough at the first glance: thirteen year-old Joel Knox has traveled from New Orleans to Noon City en route to Scully’s Landing where he expects to be reunited with his father, Edward Samsom, who has been missing from Joel’s life for the past twelve years. Joel’s divorced mother has just died, and he is responding to an invitation, ostensibly written by Sansom himself and is sent to Joel’s aunt and guardian Ellen Kendall in New Orleans. Sansom’s letter proclaims that he is once again prepared to assume his “parental duties, forsaken, lo, these many years,” (Capote 7)1 and that he can now provide Joel with a “beautiful home, healthful food, and a cultured atmosphere.” Ellen Kendall has urged Joel to depart for Scully’s Landing on the condition that he can return to his original home if he ever becomes discontent. Joel senses however that his departure is a relief to her. In Noon City, a stop over point in his travel to the Landing, Joel arranges transportation to Paradise Chapel with a turpentine truck where he will have to make further arrangements to reach the actual Landing. He completes the trip on a buggy driven by the seemingly ancient Jesus Fever, a Negro with a curved back and face “like a black withered apple” (29). Joel arrives in Scully’s Landing asleep and is ushered sleepily to his quarters where he awakens the next morning in an “immense four-poster” (40). From the bed Joel gets his first glimpse of his father’s wife, Miss Amy, ominously killing a blue jay. There is a knock at his door, but instead of his father, it is Miss Amy, who gives him an oblique welcome, and explains that the house has neither electricity or plumbing. Joel inquires about his father, but receives no information from anyone. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of Jesus Fever’s niece Missouri, a young black servant girl who answers to the name “Zoo.” But although Joel and Zoo become friends, she admonishes him, “don’t ever ax me nothn bout Mister Sansom. Miss Amy the only one who take care of him. Ax her” (61). Bored and confused with his new residence, Joel reverts to an old childhood game he refers to as Blackmail, where, back in New Orleans, he had seen a girl walking around naked and two men kissing each other. He looks up at the yellow walls of the house, and wonders which of the top floor windows belongs to him, his father, his “Cousin” Randolph, and it is at that moment he sees a “queer lady. . .holding aside the curtains. . .smiling and nodding at him, as if in greeting or approval” (67). The queer “woman” is actually Randolph in a sexual disguise, although Joel is not yet aware of “her” identity. When Joel asks Randolph who the mysterious woman in the window was, he receives no answer. Joel then again questions Randolph of when he will meet his father, but is told when he is settled he will meet his father. Joel later discovers that it was Randolph and not his father whom had written the letter. But most importantly, he at least sees his father, who is a paralytic invalid whose only means of communication is dropping tennis balls on the floor to attract attention. Other Voices, Other Rooms is, of course, open to various kinds of explanation, but probably the most imposing of them all is that of an initiation story. Capote makes it clear during the development of the novel that his Joel Knox is one more on the lengthy list of innocent American boys, whom appear so often in the pages of literature from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caufield (Brinnin 67). Like many other literary characters, Joel has left home in search of better things: an improved living circumstance, and a father who will guide him through adolescence. The development of Other Voices, Other Rooms is therefore partly to be measured in Joel’s gradual shedding of childhood innocence and his progressive movement toward maturity and a sense of personal identity. The major theme of the novel is homosexuality, a topic rarely written about prior to the advent of contemporary fiction (Garson 14). When brought up in the past, it was carefully hidden or masked. However, in Other Voices, Other Rooms there are no disguises other than various dreams and images which follow a series of strange episodes leading to Joel’s inexplicable fate, which is complimentary to Randolph sexual situation. Joel is nothing but an innocent child worked and molded by the various people and situations that he encounters (Garson 14). When first seen in the novel, Joel appears to be “too pretty, too delicate and fair skinned” (4), with an aura of “girlish tenderness” about him. Characteristics displaying Joel’s immaturity, both inwardly and outwardly. Early in the novel, Joel embarks on the journey of a better life, fortified by the letter attributed to his father, Edward Sansom, promising everything that Joel urged for from a father. However, as the journey progresses, and the more strange and perilous the journey becomes, his ideals and hopes fade with his innocence. Longing to come of age, Joel writes to his friend Sammy Silverstein back in New Orleans that “out here a person as old as us is a grown up person” (92). However, Joel’s perspective of maturity differs from reality. When in the woods with Idabel, the masculine friend of Joel, he is told a joke that has sexual innuendoes that only adults would understand. When Joel fails to comprehend the joke, Idabel assures him it is because he is too young. Such a remark injures Joel’s image of maturity which is, in reality, progressing far too rapidly. When Randolph informs Joel of the “grotesque quadruplets” (Randolph, Dolores, Pepe, and Sansom), and of the dangerous love triangle that has developed, Joel is taught a new lesson in life. Randolph tells Joel that “any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person’s nature” (78), and that “only hypocrites would hold a man responsible for what he loves. . .” This sexual attitude is instilled in Joel when those he loves fail him or betray him. Each successive loss leads inexorably to the one who waits behind the scenes – Randolph. Embracing Randolph is embracing death. Unconsciously, Joel knows this and struggles against this. But the more he seeks to escape, the more paths are closed to him. The intensity of his loneliness as well as his desire for love make him vulnerable (Garson 19). Randolph, however, is not content merely to wait. He actively, though secretly, manipulates Joel’s fate at critical points. Through deceit, he succeeds in having Joel’s aunt send the boy to live at Scully’s Landing; in concealing the condition of Joel’s father he makes Miss Amy an accomplice. Considering Zoo, the housekeeper, Randolph speaks derogatorily about her eroding Joel’s trust in her. He works similarly regarding Idabel, in order to lead Joel to himself. Randolph also surreptitiously destroys letters Joel leaves in the mail box which are pleas for help. And when help comes, in the form of Aunt Ellen, she is tricked into believing that Joel is away on a long trip, leading to her return to New Orleans. Joel, not realizing Randolph’s part in the deception, at that point believes himself completely betrayed and abandoned (Garson 20). All these events ultimately lead to Joel’s final surrender and complete acceptance towards Randolph.
Along with those other initiates in American literature, Joel decides that he is going to revert back to the less threatening way of life he had once known, but he learns that he cannot come back home again. At the infamous carnival scene Joel notes that even that “darling little girl” Miss. Wisteria weeps because “little boys must grow tall” (115). He knows too that his Aunt Ellen was relieved to see him go, and in spite of her offer to have him back for holidays (or for good if he were discontented), she has, in fact never answered any of his letters. It is in his understanding of such circumstances as these that Joel accepts his destiny and moves in the direction of Randolph, the “she” who beckons to him from the window on the novels last page: the blinding sunset drained from the glass, darkened, and it was if snow were falling there. . .a face trembled. . .smiled. She beckoned to him. . .and he knew he must go: unafraid, not hesitating, he paused only at the garden’s edge where, as though he’d forgotten something, he stopped and looked back at the bloomless, descending blue, at the boy he had left behind. (231)By this time Joel has indeed left the boy in New Orleans behind and embraced his future.Joel’s initiatory experiences in the novel are also connected to his “identity” problems quite clearly. “Somewhere along the line,” Capote states, ” he’d been played a mean trick. Only he didn’t know who to blame. He felt separated, without identity, a stone-boy mounted on a rotting stump. . .” (153). But by the end of the book when Joel scales a tree, he goes “right to the top,” spreading his arms to “claim the world” and proclaim loudly “I am me” (227). There can be no doubt that Joel has now discovered himself and has, “in a Joycean epiphany, managed to see, for the first time, the meaning of his world and his destined place in it” (Moates 89). His comprehension of these crucial matters comes, symbolically as well as literally, through his journey from New Orleans to Skully’s Landing – “a peregrination into his own deeper consciousness, which like the journey undertaken in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, leads into dark psychic penetration” (Hendin 132). Like all of the deathly references in the novel, Joel to will be caught and preserved. He will never become a man, but will remain a boy whose fate rests in the hands of Randolph. Although Joel is only thirteen years old, he knows that he is “nearer a knowledge of death than in any year to come” (Dunphy 89). When Randolph conducts Joel at last to the Cloud Hotel, the mystical place of Joel’s final passage into “adulthood.” Joel undergoes several mysterious and magical events which all lead up to the final acceptance of his fate. As Randolph and Joel leave the hotel behind, the new day resembles an empty slate where Joel’s destiny will be written. All things have prepared Joel for this final acceptance: loss, fear, loneliness, disaster, deception, desertion. The novel can also be read as the search and journey of a son longing for his father. Here, Joel’s discovery of his father is an ironic letdown; for Joel no sooner comes to know his father (to the extent that the paralyzed figure can be known) than he resolves to leave him and run off with Idabel. Toward the beginning of the novel, Joel’s “mission” to find his father is quickly underscored by his stating that “he was trying to locate his father and that was the long and short of it” (9). On his arrival at the Landing, Capote revels on page 31 how Joel is pondering over how he would greet his long lost father: “And what would he say: hello, Dad, Father, Mr. Sansom? Howdyado, hello? Hug or shake hands, or kiss?” Fantasizing, Joel tells one of his numerous lies when he writes Sammy Silverstein that “you would have liked my father” (42), when in fact Joel himself had, at that point, not seen his father. Long states that “just as Robin meets his kinsman Molineux in tar and feathers, Joel eventually finds Edward Sansom, and feels a sense of guilt” (558). The father he discovers, is no Samson, but Ed Sansom, paralytic, unable to move, unable to take care of himself, and unable to communicate.Characteristics of a person are very much influenced by surroundings and events. In Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms the main character, Joel Knox, quests for a father and an identity. When the first of the two is found as a failure, the boy determines to find a niche in a world that frightens and rejects him. The central focus of the novel, therefore, is Joel’s coming of age sexually. Raised initially by his mother and aunt, he has been enveloped in a feminine world and finds the society of “men” in Scully’s Landing to be strange and threatening. The southern mansion which the protagonist lives in is also the home of a group of grotesque figures whose strange, remote characteristics reinforce the isolated, dreamlike world in which the protagonist dwells. Ultimately, Joel falls prey to the attentions of Randolph, a transvestite who shares Joel’s sense of alienation from the conventional society. Although most would consider the lifestyle that Joel chooses as deviant, he is satisfied with gaining an identity. That Other Voices, Other Rooms is heavily autobiographical is perhaps clear enough to preclude any precise documentation. Involving as it does, a young man’s search for a home, a father, and a sense of identity, the book is created out of Capote’s early personal history, although not precisely to the letter. However, the book may be looked upon as an exercise in Capote’s quest for self understanding. In 1956, Capote remarked that “last summer I read my novel Other Voices, Other Rooms for the first time since it was published eight years ago, and it was quite as though I were reading something written by a stranger. The truth is, I am a stranger to that book; the person who wrote it seems to have so little in common with my present self” (Cowley 101). Evidentially, because of the novel’s controversial reception (as noted earlier) and the extent to which it’s author had invested himself in its pages, Capote seemed to want the whole episode in his career put well behind him (Clarke 56).
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