Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, quickly drew literary acclaim. Its pathos and psychological realism are starkly drawn in the simple language of its thirteen-year-old protagonist. The novel’s central theme is that the elemental need for “withness” drives people to any lengths to acquire it. The setting, replete with grotesques and mystical overtones, is the legendary Deep South. Capote intermingles the physical and the psychological to weave his story. That story is a boy’s effort to maneuver himself, unguided—and often misguided—from childhood into adulthood. Such rites of passage stories are often the choice of beginning novelists.
Capote builds tension by weaving two plots together: Randolph manipulates events so that Joel will be driven to fulfill his elemental need through Randolph. Tension multiplies when Capote creates a Randolph who not only wants Joel at the Landing to satisfy his sexual desires, but also wants Joel to choose to satisfy and enjoy those desires, himself. By creating a Joel at the beginning of puberty as the character whose choice provides the plot’s resolution, Capote compels audiences to invest abundant emotional energy in the novel. Randolph, using his knowledge of human needs, sets the action in motion. He manipulates events to get Joel to the Landing, monitors events to keep him there, takes advantage of events to make himself the boy’s only dependable friend, and averts Ellen’s effort to visit him. This effectively closes all other doors of fulfillment, erases all other voices of love that might speak to the boy, leaving Joel but one room and one voice to satisfy his elemental need. Joel, after visiting that room, finds he must visit others—hence the title.
Capote mirrors Randolph in Joel. For example, when Randolph holds Joel’s hand, whispering, “Try to like me, will you?” the lonely Joel thinks Randolph is mocking him, “so he questioned the round innocent eyes, and saw his own boy-face focused as in double camera lenses.” Randolph’s definition of love mirrors the definition Joel later stumbles upon for himself. Telling Joel his story, Randolph says, “few of us learn that love is tenderness.” Later, just prior to his illness, recovery, and surrender, Joel discovers this truth in the crucial scene in which he watches the black lovers and learns in a deeply personal and psychological way that love is tender. Joel would have turned to Idabel, but she wants to be a male. They meet Wisteria, and Joel watches Idabel fall in love. Capote uses Joel’s stifled yearnings to foreshadow his surrender to Randolph after the fair.
At the fair, lonely Wisteria makes advances to Joel, so he hides as she searches the old house for him. His hiding fills him with self-contempt; he thinks, “What . . . terror compared with” hers? When he awakens from feverish delirium later, he is in that bed, that room, and Randolph is there.
Seeing himself as both a child to leave behind and a man to become, Joel examines his face, and the hand glass affirms his approaching manhood. This passage makes it clearer that Joel and Randolph mirror each other. Joel notes the ageless quality of his own face, clearly connecting himself with Randolph’s “impeccably young,” still-hairless face.
As the implication becomes clearer, Joel’s decision draws nearer. Capote makes believable Joel’s willingness to surrender. Joel moves beyond a victimlike dependency on Randolph (which developed, briefly, during Joel’s recovery) and wonders if he should tell Randolph he loves him. Joel decides no, because he realizes Randolph is “neither man nor woman, an X, an outline to be colored in.” This passage reveals that Joel is now no innocent being led to slaughter. Further evidence of lost innocence comes at Little Sunshine’s, where Randolph claims they were expected. At the hotel, Joel knows Randolph lied, but he asks no questions; more significant, he does not even wonder why Randolph lied. He simply stares into the fire, drifting toward sleep, hearing the old hotel’s whispers of other voices, other rooms, wondering who will love him.
Joel’s answer comes when, with morning, he and Randolph, of one accord, feel it is a new day, “a slate clean for any future . . . as though an end had come.” Joel is elated by this, not regretful. He asks who he is. Randolph does not answer, so Joel whoops, “I am Joel, we are the same people.” Gladly, it seems, Joel identifies completely with Randolph. Later in the day, when Joel takes that last poignant look at “the boy he had left behind,” and moves toward the beckoning figure, he goes unhesitatingly.