The Message in the Bottle Essay - Critical Context

Walker Percy

Critical Context

Most frequently Walker Percy is viewed as a Southern writer, less often as an American writer. Certainly his placement in either of these categories is helpful, for he is thoroughly enveloped by his history and the contemporary context of both his region and his country. Then, too, his work is richly allusive to the literary tradition of his region and country. Nevertheless, both definitions, resting ultimately on secular values, fail to distinguish his work. He is fundamentally alienated from the world by his Christian faith. More must quickly be said to preclude misunderstanding: It is a faith enhanced by the thinking of such men as Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sren Kierkegaard, and Gabriel Marcel, and by all philosophical and scientific theory that is not distorted by secular dogmatism. What distinguishes his writing, then, is not his response to place but to time; facing an open, mysterious universe, he writes as a wayfarer to any other person who comes to believe that he too is a wayfarer.

The Message in the Bottle articulates from a different angle the worldwiew of Percy’s fiction, which is “incarnational, historical, and predicamental.” From such a perspective, the world is ordinarily a place of “everydayness,” but there are those gracious moments when a sacramental symbol offers the individual the opportunity to experience holy excitement. In such a world (in which instruments of visuality are almost always prominent) one basic narrative occurs: A miserable, visiondominated, solitary consciousness (prototypically the moviegoer) grasps or fails to grasp the opportunity to talk with another, to be Namer and Hearer and thus achieve intersubjectivity, full consciousness. The Message in the Bottle makes precisely the same set of statements about reality: In Percy’s view a fiction of ultimate concerns has much more verisimilitude than the fiction concocted by secular science.