Other Voices, Other Rooms Summary
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first published long work, is a moody and atmospheric tale characterized both by its strange setting—a decaying mansion in rural Mississippi—and by the host of peculiar characters it presents to the reader.
The book details the encounters of thirteen-year-old Joel Knox Sansom, who travels to an old mansion, Skully’s Landing, where he hopes to meet his long-lost father, Edward Sansom. In its emphasis on romantic and ghostly settings and its use of strange, eccentric characters, Other Voices, Other Rooms is typical of what has been termed the southern gothic school of fiction, a style of fiction marked by its use of the grotesque both in locale and in characterization.
This category can be seen in the works of other southern-born fiction writers such as William Faulkner (his short story “A Rose for Emily” and his 1931 novel Sanctuary both offer elements of southern gothic), Tennessee Williams (his 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer deals with incest, homosexuality, insanity, lobotomy, and cannibalism), Carson McCullers (her 1941 novel Reflections in a Golden Eye and her story “Ballad of the Sad Café” both have grotesque situations and characters), and Flannery O’Connor (her 1952 novel Wise Blood deals with religious obsession and madness). In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote uses this sense of the strange and the mysterious to convey the loneliness, isolation, and naïveté of Joel.
When Joel arrives at Skully’s Landing, he meets a variety of unusual characters: an ancient black man, Jesus Fever; Jesus Fever’s granddaughter, a twenty-one-year-old cook named Missouri (nicknamed “Zoo”); Joel’s father, the bedridden invalid Edward Sansom (who communicates with the rest of the household by rolling red tennis balls down the stairs); his father’s new wife, Miss Amy; and a much-talked-about cousin, Randolph. En route to the Landing, Joel also has met two young girls, the twins Florabel Thompkins and her tomboy twin sister, Idabel. (Many interpreters of Capote’s work see Idabel as Capote’s fictional version of his own childhood friend, Harper Lee.)
While the main plot of the book appears to be dealing with Joel’s attempt to find and, later, to talk with his father, Capote really is presenting the plight of Joel as a lonely, sensitive youth who is, in fact, trying to come to terms with his own identity in an environment where he has no moorings. In one key scene, he tries to pray; he finds it almost impossible to ask God for someone to love him, yet that is really what the boy is seeking.
It is the search for love that defines the lives of many of the characters in Other Voices, Other Rooms: Cousin Randolph, Joel’s homosexual older relative, still laments the loss of his great love, a boxer named Pepe Alvarez, and Miss Amy has married Joel’s father—even though the man is an invalid—to have someone to care for and love. These aspirations to love are reflected in the desperation of other characters: At a carnival, Joel is pursued by the midget woman, Miss Wisteria, who, throughout her tragic life, has never found anyone her own size to love.
Similarly, the cook, Zoo, has suffered from her first experience with love; at age fourteen, she had married a man named Keg Brown who tried to kill her. Zoo seeks a place of beauty and purity, which, in her fantasy, she believes she will find in the North, where she hopes to go to see snow for the first time.
At the end of the novel, Joel, after recuperating from a severe illness during which he was cared for by Cousin Randolph, makes a decision about his life. He realizes that Randolph is, in many ways, a child like himself who has simply sought love in his life. Joel decides that he must abandon his childhood and accept his own sexual nature; at the end of the novel, the mature Joel ascends from the haunted garden at Skully’s Landing to Randolph’s room to embrace Randolph, leaving behind both his youth and his own sexual longing.
(The entire section is 1,556 words.)