Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
As in most of his novels, Thomas Berger's central theme in The Houseguest is the moral initiation of a sympathetic character. In this case, the central character is a woman (a nearly unprecedented event for Berger): Lydia, the daughter-in-law of Doug and Audrey Graves, who has been married to their son, Bobby, for only five weeks. Lydia is from an Italian- American family who have recently become wealthy. The Graveses represent old wealth and status; Doug is an attorney in a prosperous law firm established by his grandfather. The polite, but unfeeling, social setting provides a new and challenging environment for Lydia.
Lydia gains insight and self-esteem, even as the civility of the novel begins to unravel, She finds that, almost alone in the family, she retains a sense of moral responsibility. She also proves to have the strongest inner resources for dealing with Chuck's challenge to peace and order. If the most practical way to deal with him is to plan and execute his murder, then Lydia is more capable than the others of committing the act. Nevertheless, the events of the novel continually surprise her, and she is astonished by the remarkable restoration of order attained by the simple expedient of hiring Chuck at the novel's conclusion. Her initiation is completed when she becomes aware of the importance of good manners for civilized behavior. "I don't think I've ever before understood what manners are," she says. "And I'm not at all sure I do even now." But her heightened awareness is confirmed by her insistence that she will stay only on condition that she remain a houseguest.
Most of the other characters are comic triumphs. Doug Graves, the philandering husband and father, is especially hilarious because of his combination of civility and insufferable arrogance, not to mention the contrast between his tireless womanizing and his fastidious avoidance of vulgarity in speech and conduct. His easy acceptance of indebtedness—so long as his creditors do not become noisy or importunate—is also amusing. Equally memorable is Audrey, his patient but insecure wife, who monitors his infidelities as some follow the baseball box scores; yet she never brings up his secret affairs. Bobby lacks his father's self-assurance, but nevertheless provides an amusing moment when he breaks out of his lifelong silence about his parents' neglect of him.
The houseguest of the title, the enigmatic Chuck Burgoyne, is an effective portrait of a social climber whose competence in numerous areas allows him to feel contempt for his hosts, whom he sees as people who take privilege for granted. He wants acceptance on the social level of the Graveses; at the same time he clearly feels the superiority and contempt of a self-made man toward this family whose social position is due to accidents of birth. Presented largely through the eyes of the other characters, Chuck seems driven by obscure motivations until the truth comes out. In the end, Chuck is one of the novel's most successful characters, since his behavior is clearly the result of a powerful ingrained ambivalence toward the Graveses. The numerous Finches, who are mostly minor characters, are superbly sketched. Berger portrays their conduct as bordering on the outrageous, but he resists the temptation to take them beyond the limits of believability.
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