(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

George Santayana divides this 602-page novel into five sections (“Ancestry,” “Boyhood,” “First Pilgrimage,” “In the Home Orbit,” and “Last Pilgrimage”) framed by a prologue and an epilogue in which the narrator, a retired Harvard professor, reflects on the life of his onetime student, Oliver Alden. Oliver’s father is Peter Alden, and when Peter offends his older brother, Nathaniel Alden, of Beacon Street, Boston, by his familiarity with working-class boys, Nathaniel banishes Peter to the Camp for Backward Boys at Slump, Wyoming. The brothers never see each other again. Years of travel are eventually followed for Peter by a medical degree from Harvard and marriage to his psychiatrist’s daughter, Harriet Bumstead, of Great Falls, Connecticut. The union produces a son, Oliver, but otherwise develops little intimacy, with Peter spending much of his time at sea on his yacht.

Oliver is born with a philosophic soul, and from his earliest days, he lives in his mind where his “goods and evils” are safe from outsiders. He finds in his governess, Fräulein Irma Schlote, the warmth lacking in his emotionally fastidious mother, but he feels that sitting in his high chair staring at a book teaches him only that “Life was essentially something to be endured, something grim.” When Oliver is eighteen, Peter takes him for the summer on his yacht, the Black Swan, where he meets Jim Darnley, his father’s captain. Peter has given Darnley the nickname “Lord Jim” for some obscure incident in his past that suggests Joseph Conrad’s famous character. Darnley is a hedonist whose influence on Oliver remains ambiguous throughout, but he is Peter’s Man Friday who watches over his master whenever Peter is comatose with drugs. When the Black Swan drops anchor near Salem harbor, Oliver gets to meet Peter’s cousin Caleb Wetherbee, a learned invalid who has built a Benedictine monastery in his Salem apple orchard. His fervor is sincere but it is dismissed by Lord Jim as driven by his bitterness at his misshapen body.

After their Salem sojourn, Peter sails to England, soon summoning Oliver and Jim to join him and dispatching Irma to Germany. From London, Jim and Oliver go to Iffley for a weekend...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

The Last Puritan Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Young Peter Alden has been educated in the United States, but he leaves Harvard before completing his studies and goes abroad with a tutor. After he comes of age and receives his inheritance, he wanders aimlessly about the world, studying occasionally. He is in his early middle years before he completes any one course. Licensed to practice medicine, his practice is limited to himself, for he has burdened himself with many ills, some real but most imaginary. At one point he consults Dr. Bumstead, a psychiatrist whose main concern is Peter’s money. Dr. Bumstead convinces Peter that a home and a wife would be the best treatment possible, and, as a consequence, Peter marries the doctor’s daughter, Harriet. They have one child, Oliver.

Little Oliver is a Puritan from the beginning. He accepts things as they are, never complaining, never wondering why. He has no child playmates because his mother fears that other children might be dirty or vulgar. Furthermore, Oliver hears no stories, songs, or prayers, as Mrs. Alden is determined that he not be filled with nonsensical ideas. Oliver’s father, who spends most of his time traveling, is no more than a polite stranger to his son.

Fraulein Irma Schlote, a German, becomes Oliver’s governess, and from her he has what little brightness there is in his childhood. On their long walks together, Irma instills in Oliver his first feelings of a love of nature and a love for the German language. Even with Irma, however, Oliver remains a stoic little Puritan. If he is tired or his foot hurts as they walk, he feels there is no use to complain—they have come for a walk, and they must finish that walk. One must do one’s duty, even if it is unpleasant. As he grows older, Oliver comes to hate human weakness with the hatred of a true Puritan.

When Oliver is fifteen, he goes to high school, where he excels in scholarship and in athletics because it is his duty to do everything that the school demands. During one holiday season, Oliver joins his father on his yacht. There he meets Jim Darnley, the yacht’s captain, who had been a British sailor before he became involved in a scandal. Jim is an entirely new type of person in Oliver’s world. Oliver knows that the sailor is worldly and has no sense of duty, but strangely enough, Oliver comes to consider Jim his dearest friend.

After his graduation from high school, Oliver joins his father and Jim in England. There, while visiting Jim’s family, he learns to respect Jim’s minister father and to enjoy the company of Rose, Jim’s young sister. He learns also that Jim has an illegitimate child, Bobby, who lives with Mrs. Bowler, his tavern-keeping mother.

While in England, Oliver also meets his distant cousin Mario Van de Weyer, a worldly young man who is dependent on his rich relatives for his education and livelihood. Oliver is puzzled by Mario, who has nothing, not even much real intelligence, yet is happy. Oliver, who has everything, is not consciously happy; he merely lives as he feels it is his duty to...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)