Study Guide

A Long and Happy Life

by Reynolds Price

A Long and Happy Life Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Few authors have the good fortune to have a whole issue of a major, high-circulation magazine devoted to the publication of their first novel at about the time the hardcover edition is released. Such fortune was Price’s, however, when Harper’s published A Long and Happy Life in its April, 1962, issue. The book went on to win a William Faulkner Foundation Award for a first novel, and the critical reception of this first book was singularly favorable.

A Long and Happy Life presents Rosacoke Mustian to the reading public, as well as her erstwhile boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, who gets the innocent girl pregnant. Although he condescends to marry her, he then pretty much leaves her on her own. The book is alive with local color. In one of the early, most memorable scenes, Rosacoke needs to attend a funeral at a black church on a sizzling day in summer. Her friend Mildred Sutton has died in childbirth and is to be eulogized. Wesley Beavers drives his noisy motorcycle up to deliver Rosacoke to the funeral, but he does not go inside. Instead, he lingers outside and polishes his motorcycle, which is an extension of his being. Before the services are over, he leaves precipitously to get ready for the church picnic that he and Rosacoke are to attend that afternoon. As he screeches away from the church, he raises a trail of red dust behind him that one can almost taste, so vivid is Price’s description.

The book is divided into three long chapters, each with appropriate subdivisions. The action takes place between July and Christmas, and each section marks a visit from Wesley, who three times comes the 130 miles from the naval base in Norfolk to see Rosacoke, his girlfriend. They have known each other for six years. Rosacoke is now twenty, Wesley twenty-two. Wesley is sexually experienced; Rosacoke is not.

Price supplies necessary details...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

A Long and Happy Life Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A Long and Happy Life, Reynolds Price’s debut novel, chronicles the struggles of a young woman to assume her place in the community as a wife and mother. Reviewers welcomed this novel about a believable, vulnerable young woman as a relief from contemporary fiction and its academic experiments in self-consciousness.

Unwed and surrounded by fecundity, Rosacoke Mustian feels marginalized from her rural Southern community. Abandoned by the young man she desires—Wesley Beavers—because she will not have sex with him, Rosacoke becomes desperate. Rather than suffer social ostracization, she decides to try to arrest Wesley’s flight from the community and to bind him to her by giving him what he wants. In doing so, she mediates the tension between the demands of the community and the desires of the self. Her plan backfires as Wesley acknowledges her gift to him by calling her by another woman’s name during the act. To him, Rosacoke is simply another woman with whom he is sexual. Rather than gratifying her, her plan hurts her.

As a result of their one act of lovemaking, Rosacoke becomes pregnant. Repenting her selfishness in having set out to trap Wesley into a marriage that he did not want, she decides to assume sole responsibility for her predicament. Wesley accepts his duty, however, and proposes to her, a proposal that she accepts as a duty to her unborn child. He rescues her from the plight of being an unwed mother and thereby...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

A Long and Happy Life Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Rosacoke Mustian is striving to win Wesley Beavers as her lover. They are both riding on Wesley’s motorcycle to the funeral of Mildred Sutton, a young African American woman and Rosacoke’s lifelong friend. Bored with following the funeral procession, Wesley revs his bike and speeds ahead of the rest of the procession to the local African American church in rural Warren County, North Carolina. Once they arrive at the church, Wesley ignores Rosacoke completely and turns to work on his motorcycle as she walks into the church to wait for the others to arrive and for the funeral to begin.

At the funeral, Rosacoke is entirely preoccupied with Wesley, looking out the church window constantly to keep an eye on his movements. When the preacher asks Rosacoke to say a few words about her friend, Mildred, she is so distracted by Wesley’s revving of his bike’s engine that she falters in her eulogy, disappointing Mildred’s family and friends. Wesley roars off on his bike from the church’s dirt lot and disappears down the road, leaving Rosacoke behind in the church. Rosacoke wanders off after him. Her journey takes her into the familiar woods where she and Mildred once went walking. As she walks through them, she recalls being there in the past.

In flashback, Mildred and Rosacoke discover a clear spring in the woods and stumble upon a young deer, a sign of innocence and mystery. While Rosacoke is staring at the spring, she hears footsteps and hides. Peering out from the trees, she sees Wesley and comes out of the woods to meet him. After a brief conversation between the innocent Rosa coke and the experienced Wesley, the two hop on Wesley’s motorcycle and ride off to a Sunday afternoon picnic where they join Rosacoke’s family and a few friends. After everyone else leaves, Rosacoke and Wesley find themselves alone, and Wesley attempts to seduce Rosacoke, unsuccessfully.

Disappointed by her lack of willingness to have sex with him, Wesley recklessly drives Rosacoke back to her house on his motorcycle. He soon goes off to Norfolk, where he sells motorcycles and sleeps with multiple women. Mistaking his desire for her as the evidence of his incipient love for her, Rosacoke writes him several letters, telling him about life in their little town and also searching for some clue about his feelings for her. When she finally does hear from him, it is in the form of a short letter that does not answer any of her probing questions.

Rosacoke goes about everyday life in Afton. She helps her brother prepare for his wife’s pregnancy; visits Sammy, the caretaker of the elderly Mr. Isaacs, the town’s wealthy landowner; pays calls on Mary, Mildred Sutton’s mother; and attempts to help care for Mildred’s baby. She ponders ways that she can catch Wesley and hold onto him. Wesley remains in Norfolk; he does not contact Rosacoke further after his short letter to her.

Not long before Thanksgiving, Wesley returns to Afton with Willie Duke Aycock—likely a former lover—and her fiancé, Heywood Betts. The townsfolk note Wesley’s return: They ask Rosacoke at church whether...

(The entire section is 1274 words.)

A Long and Happy Life Summary

Chapter 1
A Long and Happy Life takes place in rural North Carolina. It begins in July, with the novel’s protagonist,...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)