Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sutter’s notebook contains some key observations. If man is a wayfarer, he never stops anywhere long enough to hear that there is hope that conquers despair, salvation that conquers death. Will’s amnesia is not a symptom but the human condition: Man struggles to make the world anew at every moment; because he is ill-fitted for this Godlike task, it is not ennobling but pitiable. Sutter’s solution involves extremes of emotion and choice, as if they could somehow exalt a man to the stature necessary to reconstruct the world. For Will it is different; Sutter is wrong in his extremes: “God and not-God, getting under women’s dresses and blowing your brains out. Whereas and in fact my problem is how to live from one ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.” The Last Gentleman is Will’s journey from pure possibility to actuality, from telescopic observer and wayfarer in a Trav-L-Aire named Ulysses, to comforter of a dying friend and agent of salvation for a living one. Will has in some sense become a preserver of continuity. Walker Percy takes ample opportunity to observe the passing scene. He wryly comments that though the North has never lost a war, Northerners have become solitary and withdrawn, as if ravaged by war. In sharp contrast, the South is invincibly happy. Will feels most homeless when he is among those who appear to be completely at home: “The happiness of the South drove him wild with despair.” Percy presents no simple solution to the plague of homelessness. If Will is to reenter the South and marry Kitty, he wants Sutter with him. Perhaps Will is still a wayfarer, yet in The Last Gentleman he has stayed around just long enough to hear something of the honest truth.