The Sexual and Racial Symbolism in Wolfe's Novel
Throughout Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene displays a somewhat worried attitude toward sexuality. Whether it is the feeling that his loins are "black with vermin" after the frequent visits to Lily Jones's brothel or the deception by Laura James that undermines his extreme passion, Eugene has almost uniformly unhealthy relationships with women. His romance with Louise, the first of his many brief affairs with older women, marks the beginning of a tendency either to unrealistically idealize women or to degrade them, and this habit continues through Eugene's dramatic break from his mother at the end of the novel.
A psychoanalytical reading of Look Homeward, Angel would partially account for this tendency by revealing Eugene's massive and unresolved Oedipal complex. Wolfe, who practiced some dream therapy himself and was certainly aware of the pervasive influence of Freudian theory at the time, seems to acknowledge this quite explicitly in passages such as, "every step of that terrible voyage which his incredible memory and intuition took back to the dwelling of her womb." Freud wrote that degradation of sexual partners was a common by-product of an unresolved Oedipal complex, and he would have seen Eugene as a classic case. The feeling of "incestuous pollution" with Miss Brown is perhaps the clearest example of Eugene's attempting to live out the incest taboo in a different context, and in a more general way, this may account for the vast age differences in all of Eugene's affairs.
Wolfe develops this idea in a variety of contexts. The relationship of Helen and Gant, also clearly Freudian, arouses an outwardly jealous battle between mother and daughter that ultimately results in Eliza's firmer hold on Eugene. And Wolfe connects Eliza's bond with her youngest son inextricably with his other relationships. Eliza is actively jealous of Laura James and Miss Brown in particular; Eugene must confront his mother and kiss her four times before he can finally sneak away to sleep next to Laura for the first time.
Indeed, it is clear that Wolfe is conscious of the Oedipal complex and that he uses it for much of his most important romantic symbolism. The refrain itself, "O Lost," employs the "exile" from the "dark womb" as a metaphor for the human experience, and it is clear that this is a fundamentally important image for Wolfe when he connects it to his grandest and most universal themes: "our earliest ancestors had crawled out of the primeval slime; and then, no doubt, finding the change unpleasant, crawled back in again." Wolfe seems to be developing an idea of the womb as an ambiguous mix of messy slime and uncorrupted perfection, in line with the Freudian concept that the incest taboo is often merged with idealized romantic desire.
Wolfe is very interested in the interdependency between universal and local themes, and, as C. Hugh Holman writes in his essay "'The Dark, Ruined Helen of His Blood': Thomas Wolfe and the South": "this universal experience was for him closely tied up with the national, the American experience." Since these political and symbolic areas are so connected for Wolfe, it is not surprising that personal or even Oedipal connections are so frequently tied to political ideas; this is why Gant represents the North, and Eliza is a fixed symbol of the American South.
This basic association has some interesting consequences. Underneath Eugene's surface conflict—that he must eventually tear himself away from the South (his mother) he loves and wander to the firm intellectual land of the North—there is...
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