Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918
George Santayana divides this 602-page novel into five sections (“Ancestry,” “Boyhood,” “First Pilgrimage,” “In the Home Orbit,” and “Last Pilgrimage”) framed by a prologue and an epilogue in which the narrator, a retired Harvard professor, reflects on the life of his onetime student, Oliver Alden. Oliver’s father is Peter Alden, and when Peter offends his older brother, Nathaniel Alden, of Beacon Street, Boston, by his familiarity with working-class boys, Nathaniel banishes Peter to the Camp for Backward Boys at Slump, Wyoming. The brothers never see each other again. Years of travel are eventually followed for Peter by a medical degree from Harvard and marriage to his psychiatrist’s daughter, Harriet Bumstead, of Great Falls, Connecticut. The union produces a son, Oliver, but otherwise develops little intimacy, with Peter spending much of his time at sea on his yacht.
Oliver is born with a philosophic soul, and from his earliest days, he lives in his mind where his “goods and evils” are safe from outsiders. He finds in his governess, Fräulein Irma Schlote, the warmth lacking in his emotionally fastidious mother, but he feels that sitting in his high chair staring at a book teaches him only that “Life was essentially something to be endured, something grim.” When Oliver is eighteen, Peter takes him for the summer on his yacht, the Black Swan, where he meets Jim Darnley, his father’s captain. Peter has given Darnley the nickname “Lord Jim” for some obscure incident in his past that suggests Joseph Conrad’s famous character. Darnley is a hedonist whose influence on Oliver remains ambiguous throughout, but he is Peter’s Man Friday who watches over his master whenever Peter is comatose with drugs. When the Black Swan drops anchor near Salem harbor, Oliver gets to meet Peter’s cousin Caleb Wetherbee, a learned invalid who has built a Benedictine monastery in his Salem apple orchard. His fervor is sincere but it is dismissed by Lord Jim as driven by his bitterness at his misshapen body.
After their Salem sojourn, Peter sails to England, soon summoning Oliver and Jim to join him and dispatching Irma to Germany. From London, Jim and Oliver go to Iffley for a weekend with Jim’s parents and his young sister, Rose. Jim’s father is the local vicar whose simple spiritual decency contrasts with Wetherbee’s intense Catholicism. In their first evening at the parsonage, Jim leads Oliver to the King’s Arms Inn, run by Minnie Bowler, who turns out to be the mother of Jim’s illegitimate child, Bobby. Oliver’s initiation into the world is further widened by his introduction in London to his cousin, Mario Van de Weyer, a student whose career at Eton is flamboyant without quite being scandalous and who gradually displaces Jim as the major influence on Oliver. Oliver has no sooner sailed for home than Peter kills himself by an overdose of drugs, and Oliver has to return to London with his mother, a voyage somewhat clouded by Jim’s officious and intruding presence.
Two years after Peter’s death, Mario enrolls at Harvard College, and Oliver is soon studying philosophy there as well, domiciled in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s old room at Divinity Hall. At one point the narrator breaks in to recall Oliver’s essay on Platonic love, an essay that became “indirectly the first cause of this book.” However, Oliver’s musings on Plato fade quickly when he accepts a Christmas invitation to his Aunt Caroline’s home in New York City, where Mario’s beautiful and spirited cousin, Edith Van de Weyer, introduces a new concern into his life. Whereas Mario’s romantic indiscretions force him to return to England, Oliver convinces himself that to save his soul he would be wise to marry Edith, not knowing that she has already dismissed him in her mind: “As a lover the boy was ridiculous, at once oldish and green. As a husband the man would be insupportable, a biting critic, a frigid tyrant, methodically making love.”
After Oliver attempts to couple with a French woman in Paris when on leave during World War I, he admits that “the sort of love she expected of me is something I am held back from by my deepest nature,” and he gradually realizes that satisfying sexual relations with a woman are impossible for him. Oliver interprets this resistance to natural impulses as a Puritan instinct, but this “deepest nature” may well reveal Oliver’s unacknowledged desire for both Jim and Mario. Homosexual tension colors several passages, such as Oliver and Jim’s nude bathing scene on the Black Swan, and a crude identification of “Greek love” (the narrator’s term) with Platonic idealism emerges. Walt Whitman’s name is several times evoked, and his “manly love of comrades,” though never cited, seems to summarize Oliver’s feelings for first Jim and then Mario. Oliver’s disappointment with Edith is followed by rejection from Rose, who is perceptive enough to realize that Oliver’s love is an airy thing lacking in the natural carnality of married love. She says of him, “He was the victim of a congenital disease; he suffered from a moral cramp, a clog in the wheel of every natural passion.” Commenting on Oliver’s death in a motorcycle accident soon after the armistice, the narrator judges that “He would have gained nothing by living to a hundred” and “His later years would only have been pallid copies of his earlier ones.”
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