Themes and Meanings
The major theme of The Prince of Tides is the damaging effects of denial and repression and the need of the individual to understand and accept the past in order to function in the present. Lila stands out in the novel as the prime instigator of denial in her constant demands that the children never talk about family problems. Henry is also guilty, even managing to convince himself that he has never abused his wife or children. Such repression leads the Wingo children to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, guilt, and anger, and manifests itself ultimately in self-destructiveness. The novel suggests that release occurs only through acceptance and confession of reality. While the ending of the novel does not suggest that Tom and Savannah will “live happily ever after,” both seem to have experienced significant healing and to have reached a level of self-acceptance that provides a sense of hope and peace.
Another theme that emerges in the novel is racism. Amid classmates who are hostile and cruel to Benji Washington, the first black admitted to Colleton High School, Tom is bullied by Savannah into befriending Benji. Ultimately, through Tom’s work with Benji on the football field, Benji gains acceptance in the school and the community.
Conroy also uses The Prince of Tides to demonstrate a love for land, sea, and nature and to attack those who destroy nature in the name of progress. Reese Newbury, the greedy land-grabber and seller, stands in remarkable contrast to Luke, the prince of tides, who sacrifices his life trying to defend the takeover of the island by the government to build plants to manufacture nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel. On the whole, the novel seems to reflect Conroy’s discontent with the twentieth century and with its destruction of place, innocence, and family.