Study Guide

The Last Picture Show

by Larry McMurtry

The Last Picture Show Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Late at night, Lonnie Bannon of Horseman, Pass By would sit on top of his windmill and gaze off at the lights of Thalia, the small town that McMurtry describes in his third book, The Last Picture Show. There are more people in Thalia than on Lonnie’s ranch, but they are equally lonely. People in Thalia in the early 1950’s are caught between the dying countryside and the frightening pull of such booming cities as Dallas and Houston. Many people in Thalia had moved in from surrounding ranches (as the McMurtrys had moved to Archer City). Feeling under siege by the strange ways of the steadily encroaching urban United States, they impose their old ways on the town and try to crush any signs of nonconformity.

The story focuses on Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore. It opens as the boys finish their last high school football game and continues over the following year as they search for a new path for themselves. Sam the Lion, once a rancher, now owns the town’s movie theater, pool hall, and café. He acts as a father-surrogate for Sonny and Duane, and for other boys in need, including Billy, the mentally retarded boy that Sam took in and reared. Billy sweeps out Sam’s businesses. If someone does not stop him, he sweeps to the edge of town and on into the empty countryside, as mindlessly occupied as the rest of the townspeople are as they go about their lives.

Duane dates the town beauty, Jacy Farrow, the daughter of oil-rich Lois and Gene Farrow. Jacy is a narcissistic, selfish young woman whose sense of self depends on the admiration and envy of others. She dates Duane only because he is a handsome high school athlete.

The story focuses mainly on Sonny, an innocent young man much like Lonnie Bannon. During this year, Sonny is initiated into manhood through a sexual relationship with Ruth Popper and through the death of Sam the Lion. Ruth...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

The Last Picture Show Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Last Picture Show is a frank, vivid, and at times broadly satiric portrayal of rural Texas in transition. At the time of the action, both Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore are prematurely emancipated high school seniors, living together in a rooming house and supporting themselves through part-time jobs, though each boy has one living parent. Most of their free time, such as it is, is spent in one or another of the establishments owned by an elderly patriarch known as Sam the Lion— the pool hall, movie house (“picture show”), or café. On weekends, the boys inconveniently share Sonny’s old pickup truck for their dates, Duane with the rich, alluring Jacy Farrow and Sonny with the plainer, foul-tempered Charlene Duggs. As the girls’ names would imply, McMurtry leaves little doubt that life in a town such as Thalia is never far removed from the barnyard, an impression underscored by the name and occupation of Sonny’s initial employer, a bottled-gas dealer named Frank Fartley. The true action of the novel begins early when Sonny, somewhat to his own surprise, decides that he really does not like Charlene and impulsively breaks up with her on the first anniversary of their steady dating. Thereafter, the novel traces the steep contours of Sonny’s “sentimental education” against the temporal backdrop of irreversible changes occurring in the town of Thalia.

Once he has broken up with Charlene, Sonny is known to be “available”—not only to other women but also to experience in general. Soon thereafter, he falls into an unlikely liaison with Ruth Popper, the shy, neglected wife of the high school football coach. Ruth is both able and willing to teach Sonny about more than sex and love, but the difference in their ages continues to loom between them. Duane, meanwhile, remains attached to Jacy Farrow, little suspecting that Jacy plans to drop him as soon as she has made the right connections, with a moneyed, high-living, nude-bathing young crowd in nearby Wichita Falls. It is Jacy’s mobility—and volatility—that will keep both Sonny and Duane off-balance, precipitating the novel’s principal crises.

Life in Thalia, meanwhile, keeps changing in response to...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

The Last Picture Show Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry’s third novel, treats the struggle to come of age in a society that has lost traditional moorings. In the small fictional town of Thalia, Texas, Sonny Crawford, from whose point of view the story is told, has no real family. In his senior year in high school in 1954, Sonny lives in a rooming house with his friend Duane.

Their football coach, Herman Popper, is a poor coach, but he is even worse as a classroom teacher. Unfortunately, most of the other teachers are no better, and Sonny and Duane sleep through most of their classes. The only outlets for youth in the town besides athletics are Fundamentalist religious activities, sexual experimentation, and the movies at the town’s one “picture show.”

The title of the book suggests small-town monotony and emptiness: The best Thalia can offer is the escape of movies, a way out of facing drab realities. The “picture show,” however, is about to close. Television—a social change that does not seem to be an improvement—has made the movie house unprofitable.

Sonny and Duane and the others have no family to guide them, no school that offers positive challenges, no meaningful religious grounding. Their sexual experimentation brings no real intimacy, no lasting relationships. What once was an agricultural ranching economy is now dominated by oil. Newly rich men drive fast cars, exploit the land’s natural resources, and callously...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

The Last Picture Show Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sonny is a football player in his last year of high school, living in Thalia, a small town in Texas. He lives with his best friend, Duane, and dates Charlene Suggs. Sonny is not very fond of Charlene and is in love with Duane’s girlfriend, Jacy Farrow, but Charlene is the only available girl in school. Sonny’s days consist of sleeping through school, driving a butane truck, and hanging out at a pool hall owned by Sam the Lion, the veritable town elder. The only other thing to do in town is watch movies at the local movie theater, where most of Sonny and Duane’s dates with Charlene and Jacy take place. Sonny also regularly keeps Billy company. As Billy is mentally disabled, Sam the Lion takes note of Sonny’s generous nature toward Billy and is less critical of Sonny than of the other boys in town.

Duane concerns himself with trying to make love to Jacy and is wholly intent on marrying her after high school. Duane, however, is from a poor family, while Jacy’s family is far wealthier. Jacy is peripherally aware that she will never marry Duane, but Duane is caught up in being in love and is resolved to make it work. Duane spends most evenings after school working on an oil drill, while Jacy concerns herself with preparing for college and leaving Thalia forever.

Sonny, Duane, and Jacy are sexually frustrated, and they constantly push the boundaries between their desires and what is socially acceptable. The entire town, in fact, is sublimely aware of sexual frustration, and the populace is rife with sexual controversy. Jacy’s mother, Lois Farrow, is known to be engaged in an affair with a man named Abilene, a local pool shark and Duane’s boss. The high school’s football and basketball coach, Coach Popper, is ostensibly a closeted homosexual, despite being married and more than willing to point out and berate other possible homosexuals. Popper’s wife, Ruth, is so neglected that she and Sonny soon begin an affair of their own after Coach Popper asks Sonny to take Ruth to a doctor, a task for which Coach Popper himself cannot make time.

As part of her attempt to pave the way to post-Thalia life, Jacy begins to hang out with wealthier kids in Wichita Falls. There, she thinks she falls in love with a boy named Bobby Sheen and quickly makes plans to replace Sheen’s girlfriend, Annie-Annie. Duane, rightfully suspicious, beats up the boy responsible for taking Jacy to Wichita Falls, an attention seeker named Lester Marlow. After the beating, Lester tells Duane about Bobby Sheen, though Duane is loathe to believe him. Lester runs to tell his friends that he was jumped by Duane and Sonny, and Lester’s friends arrive in Thalia to take revenge.

Fed up with everything, Sonny and...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)