Study Guide

The Wild Palms

by William Faulkner

The Wild Palms Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Old Man. There are two convicts. One is tall, lean, about twenty-five, with long Indian-black hair, who is serving prison time for a botched train robbery. The second convict is short, plump, and almost hairless, like something exposed when one turns over a rock or a log. The second convict is serving 139 years for his participation in a gas station robbery in which the attendant was killed, although probably not by the second convict. Both convicts are doing time at the Mississippi State penal farm, which runs along the Mississippi. The river is flooding over its banks, forcing the evacuation of the prisoners.

The convicts are moved by truck, train, and boat, and everywhere they are surrounded by National Guard troops and by the muddy water of the rising river. The two convicts are provided with a skiff and told to pick up stranded farmers and their families. The short convict returns to the staging area alone and reports to the authorities that the boat overturned and that the tall convict disappeared beneath the water. The warden decides to list the tall convict as missing and presumed dead while trying to save lives; the tall convict served his time.

The tall convict in fact resurfaces. He manages to scramble back into the skiff but is unable to control it. He drifts for some time before he encounters a pregnant woman sitting in a tree. He tries to paddle upstream with her but at night they are swept downstream. They meet others who are stranded by the flood; the others refuse to give food and shelter to the convict and the woman. The convict also encounters some National Guard troops and tries to surrender, but they misunderstand and shoot at him. He flees. Finally, the two find higher ground and struggle ashore. The convict passes out.

By the time he revives, the woman has delivered her baby. They get back on the water and are picked up by a riverboat and taken farther south. They are left beside a levee. Taking to the water again, they are befriended by a Cajun, and the convict helps him hunt for alligators. The convict flees again, however, unable to tell the Cajun and the woman that the area is about to be flooded. All three are rescued again and evacuated to safety with other refugees. The convict surrenders himself, dressed in his cleaned prison uniform, to a sheriff’s deputy.

A state official and the warden discuss the prisoner’s case. Officially he is dead and therefore free; the young state official is afraid that the administrative mistake will be discovered. The warden points out that the prisoner turned himself in and that he even returned the skiff. To avoid declaring a mistake was made, the prisoner is nevertheless declared to have attempted escape and is given ten additional years to his sentence. The tall prisoner reunites with the short one, and the novel concludes with them talking about women and prison life, especially the tall one’s extra ten years.

The Wild Palms. A young man calls on a local doctor to help an ailing woman. The doctor and his wife live next door, and they are intrigued by the couple but know nothing about them. The doctor has been speculating for days about the woman’s condition, which he diagnoses in various ways. Before he is admitted to see her, he overhears the delirious ravings of the woman; during these ravings, she calls the young man a “bloody bungling bastard.”

The young man and the woman are Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyer. Harry is an intern at New Orleans Hospital. He is an orphan who struggled through medical school on a two-thousand-dollar legacy left him by his doctor father. On...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)