Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New Orleans. Louisiana city that is Joel’s hometown. It is a place where he feels isolated and alone, but one that nurtures his growing interest in the adult world. He never feels at home in New Orleans. Feeling like an outsider, he often skips school and hangs out with older, African American fruit pickers. His alienation from the gloomy city is not helped by his lack of friends and parents, and he daydreams about stowing away on a banana boat to Central America and becoming an adult with a good job in some foreign city. In his dreams, he wants to be as far away as possible from New Orleans.
Paradise Chapel. Rustic Louisiana village meant to represent rural Louisiana as a whole. During the summer, the town is a dusty place full of truck drivers transporting interstate goods. For Joel, it is a point of transition in his voyage from New Orleans to his new final destination. His genealogical attachment to the land of the American South is symbolized by the big luggage that belonged to his Confederate great grandfather. Joel is carrying a piece of history with him in a rusty and dusty town of the Deep South that pays no attention to a sensitive boy who is alienated from his own geographical roots.
Noon City. Another small Louisiana town. Upon entering Noon City, Joel has a singular experience that is tied to the mysteries and perversions of the...
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As in most Capote novels, locales are described in minute physical detail. These descriptions are impressionistic; they define the essential nature of the place itself and Joel's emotions as he observes his surroundings. For example, shortly after he arrives at Skully's Landing, Joel looks out the window at the garden, which to him reflects the loneliness and despair he sees in the household: "Below, under a fiery surface of sum waves, a garden, a jumbled wreckage of zebrawood and lilac, elephant-ear plant and weeping willow, the lace-leafed limp branches shimmering delicately, and dwarfed cherry trees, like those in oriental prints, sprawled raw and green in the noon heat. It was not a result of simple neglect, this tangled oblong area, but rather the outcome, it appeared, of someone having, in a riotous moment, scattered about it a wild assortment of seed." In this blend of customary Southern garden plants with wild grasses and vines, Joel sees "the primitive, haunted look of a lost ruin" and Capote provides a concrete image of the decay in the Skully-Lee family.
Similarly, descriptions of a character's room provide insight into that individual's personality. When Joel first visits Randolph's room, he does not yet understand that Randolph is not a true artist but an emotionally weak and destructive dilettante, but Capote strongly hints at this situation:
. . . faded gold and tarnished silk reflecting in ornate mirrors, it...
(The entire section is 786 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Other Voices, Other Rooms—Truman Capote's first published novel—was critically acclaimed when it was published in 1948, but its popularity has declined in recent years. Perhaps the complex pattern of symbolism and multiple plot layers are confusing to today's readers. Since the entire narrative is filtered through Joel's consciousness, and much of the action takes place within his mind, the novel is heavily infused with ambiguity, and though its landscape of dream and nightmare may resemble that of modern fantasy literature, its surreal elements can no longer be considered unique or experimental. Readers could profitably analyze this novel in the literary context of its era, noting that its deliberate references to artifice and established constructs show a relationship to both postwar novels and the theater of the absurd. Other themes deserving of such exploration include the isolation of the individual, people's failure to communicate, and characters' search for love and security. Likewise, Capote's views of one's relationship to society and social conventions could be explored, as could his theme of initiation.
1. Like many of Capote's young male protagonists, Joel Knox is the perennial outsider seeking his place in the world. This novel traces his initiation into the adult world and the process by which he establishes himself in that world. What does he learn from each of the adult characters, and what role does he assume as the novel...
(The entire section is 588 words.)
In this, his first novel, Truman Capote is concerned less about social issues than about personal themes; however, Other Voices, Other Rooms does emphasize the important role of family in the development of the individual. Joel Knox's family is typical of those found in Capote's novels; in effect he has no family. His mother is dead, his father never is really a presence in his life, and he must create his own version of family as he defines his relationship to other individuals, most of whom are as isolated as he. Until he can experience some type of familial love, he remains the outsider and social misfit.
Perhaps because of his own unhappy childhood and his somewhat strained relationship with his mother, Capote often portrays young men who find nurturing, maternal influences in a character other than the biological parent. After the mother's death in Other Voices, Other Rooms, the father can claim Joel for whatever designs the other characters, especially Randolph, have on him, but the father is almost a cipher except as a tool to advance the plot.
Another major concern is the conflict between community values and individual values. Joel first becomes aware of this conflict when he realizes that he is not accepted by his schoolmates in New Orleans, but the dimensions of that conflict are made clear to him shortly after his arrival in Noon City, when the barber, the beautician, and the cafe owner all condemn Idabel Thompkins...
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The themes of failed communication, misdirected love, insecurity, and isolation of the individual are reminiscent of Carson McCullers' fiction, and the physically grotesque characters who combine caricature and pathos may reflect the additional influence of Erskine Caldwell. The oratorical diction and dense syntax remind the reader of other Southern novelists such as William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. The extensive symbolism resembles the symbolic naturalism of Stephen Crane; and both the extensive use of surreal dream imagery and the manipulation of point of view suggests James Joyce. Although Capote never credited any of these influences, critics and other novelists have pointed out the distinct parallels.
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In his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote introduces recurring characters, most notably the young male orphan and the eccentric females who take him into their household. Each of these young boys—initially an outsider—finds a sense of belonging as he gains maturity and self-knowledge from his experiences with these women. The young boys in other novels, such as A Christmas Memory (1966) and The Grass Harp (1951; see separate entry), become the wards of sisters—one loveably eccentric and the other practical and authoritarian. Here, though, the practical and somewhat cruel woman is Joel's stepmother Amy and the eccentric relative is her cousin Randolph, who at least twice appears dressed as an exotic lady. Amy's devotion to Randolph also resembles the relationship between Kate McCloud and P. B.Jones in Answered Prayers (1975-76), as well as that of Holly Golightly and the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958; see separate entry).
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Capote, Truman. Preface to Other Voices, Other Rooms. New York: Random House, 1968. Reflects on his first novel, explaining the source of its inspiration and discussing its autobiographical nature. Reading Capote’s insights into his own work enriches the reading of the novel.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Ballantine, 1989. Well-documented from primary sources, including seven years of interviews with Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms gets extensive coverage, from publication to theme to the novel’s symbolism. Gives Capote’s view on the homosexuality in the novel. Bibliography, notes, and an annotated index.
Moates, Marianne M. A Bridge of Childhood: Truman Capote’s Southern Years. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1989. A compilation of stories about Capote’s childhood, giving background on Joel Knox as an autobiographical character. The pathos in Joel Knox comes from Capote’s investing his adult sense of abandonment in the child character.
Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1970. Illuminates Capote’s insight on his use of imagination. A full chapter on Other Voices, Other Rooms. Provides a plot summary and thorough analysis of themes in the novel.
Reed, Kenneth T. Truman...
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