The subject of The City and the Pillar is Jim Willard’s coming of age. The novel is an Entwicklungsroman reminiscent in some respects of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763) or Roger Martin du Gard’s Jean Barois (1913; English translation, 1949). The crucial difference in The City and the Pillar, however, is that Jim Willard is homosexual, and the novel focuses on his growing sexual awareness, on his first sexual encounter, and on his leading a homosexual existence in a heterosexual world.
The book uses a frame technique. The protagonist is first introduced as he sits in a bar where he has been drinking for several hours. The last chapter of the book takes up where the first chapter left off, and the rest of the plot is developed through flashbacks which encompass Jim’s life from age seventeen until now, when he is in his mid-twenties. In the course of the book, Vidal traces Jim’s progress from small-town rural Virginia to Seattle, Beverly Hills, New Orleans, the Yucatán, and New York, where he has arranged a reunion with Bob Ford, his first lover.
Jim finds expression for his budding sexuality during a weekend that he spends in an isolated cabin with Bob Ford, a year his senior. The two fall into a sexual relationship spontaneously and naturally in the course of the weekend. Vidal portrays Jim not as the kind of homosexual whom most people would have thought prototypical in the 1940’s, but rather as a quite virile, athletic type much like anyone else except for his homosexuality.
Jim does not get along with his parents, and as soon as he finishes high school, he leaves home and ships out as a cabin boy. When the ship lays over in Seattle, one of Jim’s more worldly crewmates takes him to a prostitute. Jim is intrigued at first but then is repulsed by the female body, and he flees in such a state of embarrassment that he is unable to return to his ship and face his friends. Instead, he goes to Beverly Hills as a tennis coach at an exclusive hotel. Jim is invited to a party at the palatial home of Ronald Shaw, a film idol, who takes Jim in to live with him. The two have a prolonged affair.
When his affair with Shaw ends, Jim becomes the lover of Paul Sullivan, a writer who is attracted by Jim’s masculine appearance and demeanor. The two have an affair, during which Jim comes more to grips with the idea of loving a man, something that he had considered unnatural in his relationship with Ronald Shaw.
When the two run into Maria Verlaine, a rich and sophisticated friend of Paul in New Orleans, she invites the two of them to go to the Yucatán with her. They accept, and Maria tries to involve Jim in an affair with her. Jim cannot respond, but the incident provides Paul, who is masochistic, with an opportunity to play the wounded one, which he enjoys. For his part, Jim is convinced, after his experience with Maria, that he is not like other men and that his homosexuality is ingrained to the point that he will never be rid of it.
With the entrance of the United States into World War II, Jim enlists in the army and Paul becomes a foreign correspondent. The two are separated. Jim, who does not like army life, becomes a physical training instructor but soon is mustered out because of arthritis.
Jim has learned still more about his sexual nature during his time...
(The entire section is 926 words.)