(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the preface to this novel, written approximately four months before his death, Wolfe announced that he had turned away from the books he had written in the past; he had intended rather to create a hero whose discovery of life and the world takes place, by his standards, on a more objective plane. Other ways in which the pattern of his earlier works had been varied are evident. Although The Web and the Rock was based upon his early life and experiences, those portions dealing with childhood and adolescence were allotted comparatively less space. There is correspondingly more emphasis on events from the author’s early adulthood that had not been discussed in the previous novels. The protagonist and Wolfe’s final hero, named George Webber, outwardly does not resemble the author to the same extent as does Eugene Gant, though there can be little doubt that, in the same way as Gant, Webber was meant to be the spokesman for Wolfe’s thoughts and ideas.

In the first part of the novel, the style also is somewhat more terse and less free-flowing than had been the case in previous works, though later the narrative tends more to resemble that which had been used earlier. It should be mentioned as well that, while it has sometimes been asserted that Wolfe’s last two books were to a significant extent adapted by (and indeed, partly written by) his second editor, Edward Aswell, specialists have found that in their essential features the works conformed in most ways to the form in which Wolfe originally had cast them.

The Web and the Rock begins in another fictional version of Wolfe’s native city, this time named Libya Hill; his central character, George Webber, is the son of a stonecutter who had migrated to the South many years before. George’s early life is described from about the age of twelve. Because of his short, stocky, crouched bearing, George has a vaguely simian appearance; he is called “monkey,” or “Monk.” While physically he differs noticeably from his creator, he otherwise has much in common with Wolfe. In the early portions of the novel there is a great deal of attention paid to sports and games and other pastimes. Friendships and confrontations with other boys occupy much of his time, and indeed those he had known from this period seemed destined later to appear in his life at unexpected junctures. On the other hand, the boy could not but be fascinated by the dark and violent underside of southern small-town life. On one occasion, a black man he had come to know inexplicably has gone berserk and kills several people with a rifle before being brought down by a sheriff’s posse; his bullet-riddled corpse is left on display at a local undertaker’s establishment. Such incidents underscore the fragile balance between orderliness and destructive impulses.

When George is about sixteen, the reader learns, his father has died, and George has become a student at a state school named Pine Rock College, where...

(The entire section is 1216 words.)

The Web and the Rock Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

George Webber’s childhood is one of bleakness and misery. He is a charity ward who lives with his aunt and uncle. George’s father deserted him and his mother and went off to live with another woman. After the death of George’s mother, her Joyner relatives take George into their home, where the boy is never allowed to forget that he has Webber blood mixed in with his Joyner blood. Strangely, all of his good and beautiful dreams are dreams of his father, and often he hotly and passionately defends his father to the Joyners. His love for his father makes his childhood a divided one. George hates the people his aunt and uncle call good, and those they call bad, he loves. A lonely child, George keeps his thoughts and dreams to himself rather than expose them to the ridicule of the Joyners, but the picture of that happy, joyful world of his father, and others like him, stays with him during those bleak years of his childhood.

When George is sixteen years of age, his father dies, leaving the boy a small inheritance. With that money, George leaves the little southern town of Libya Hill and goes to college. There he finds knowledge, freedom, and life. Like many other young men, George wastes some of that freedom in sprees of riotous and loose living, but he also reads everything he can get his hands on, and he is deeply impressed with the power of great writers. George is beginning to feel the need to put some of his thoughts and memories down on paper. He wants to write of the two sides of the world—the bright, happy world of the people who have everything and the horrible, dreary world of the derelicts and the poor. His college years end, and George fulfills the dream of every country boy in the nation; he goes to the city, to the beautiful, wonderful “rock,” as he calls New York.

The city is as great and as marvelous as George knew it would be. He shares an apartment with four other young men; it is a dingy, cheap place, but it is their own apartment, where they can do as they please. George, however, finds the city to be a lonely place in spite of its millions of people and its bright lights. There is no one to whom he is responsible or to whom he belongs. He thinks he will burst with what he knows about people and about life, and, because there is no one he can talk to about those things, he tries to write them down. He begins his first novel.

The next year is the loneliest one George ever knew. He drives himself mercilessly. He is wretched, for the words torturing his mind will not go on the paper as he wants. At the end of a year, he takes the last of his inheritance and goes to Europe. He hopes to find there the peace of mind he needs to finish his book. The cities of Europe do not hold his salvation. He is still lonely and bitter, because he cannot find the answer to the riddle of life....

(The entire section is 1157 words.)