The Field of Vision Summary
by Wright Morris

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The Field of Vision Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Field of Vision, like The Huge Season and The Inhabitants, reflects Morris’s struggle with the past. In this book, however, he is less concerned with how one escapes the past than he is with how one confronts and conceptualizes it. One of the most sophisticated and intricate of Morris’s novels, The Field of Vision employs multiple perspectives to capture, group, and explore scattered fragments of the lives of five Americans.

What Morris reveals through the primary voices in the novel is largely a vision of failure. Virtually all the main characters are unable or unwilling to make constructive use of the past in order to cope effectively with everyday events. McKee, for example, prides himself in his common sense and adopts a conservative response to life; however, because he is unable to see beyond the superficial, he responds to the disconcerting present by retreating into the conventionality of middle-class values. Lois, McKee’s wife, is conventional as well, marrying McKee because marriage provided an accepted pattern of behavior that protected her from her subverted darker desires. The McKees share material success—a big house and money—but no love. Both have rejected sex, and Lois remains “stiffly laced into her corset of character.”

Scanlon, Lois’s father, sees virtually nothing in the present. During the bullfight, he spends most of his time reminiscing about a wagon train that languished from thirst as it crossed Death Valley. An eighty-seven-year-old former plainsman, he saw the turn of the century but failed to turn with it, choosing to live his life isolated in a small Nebraska town. Gordon Boyd, an influential boyhood friend of McKee who once picked Ty Cobb’s pocket and was the first to kiss Lois, was something of an audacious hero in his youth. Now, however, he is unemployed, and his outlandish antics hold more entertainment value than heroic inspiration. Finally, Dr. Lehmann, a psychiatrist whom Morris employs as a commentator on the characters’ lives, sports a fake German accent and is more eccentric than the odd patients he treats.

To give structure to the central perspectives, Morris cast The Field of Vision in terms of a spectator’s reaction to a bullfight and used the circle as the unifying device. The arena, a circular sandpit, is the central focus which elicits individual responses to the experience shared by the five main characters. The present events in the novel are brief, however, and are nearly inconsequential when compared to the past to which the characters repeatedly refer. The narrative technique is circular as well; it shifts from character to character, in round-robin fashion, according to the point of view presented.

One of the keys to interpreting The Field of Vision is found on the flyleaf to the first edition, on which Morris said that the book grew from the belief that the “imaginative act is man himself.” Such a notion is reinforced in the book’s epigraph, taken from John Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” What Morris suggests is that reality, because it is evanescent and subjective, can best be captured by the inside workings of the human mind. Thus, each individual—for better or for worse—uses the imagination to give pattern and meaning to life.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Vacationing in Mexico in the 1950’s, Walter McKee runs into his best friend, Gordon Boyd, whom he had not seen for fifteen years. Without any introduction, Boyd says, “How’s the little woman?” McKee replies that he and his wife could not be happier, which irritates Boyd, who, instead of settling down like his friend McKee, spent his life on the road, wandering wherever fate took him. McKee made money and became a success, although years earlier he stood on his fiancé’s front porch while Boyd gave Lois her first kiss.

At a bullfight to which they all go, Lois is busy supervising her elderly father and her young grandson. Both wear coonskin caps...

(The entire section is 1,483 words.)