Other Voices, Other Rooms

by Truman Capote

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Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Louisiana city that is Joel’s hometown. It is a place where he feels isolated and alone, but one that nurtures his growing interest in the adult world. He never feels at home in New Orleans. Feeling like an outsider, he often skips school and hangs out with older, African American fruit pickers. His alienation from the gloomy city is not helped by his lack of friends and parents, and he daydreams about stowing away on a banana boat to Central America and becoming an adult with a good job in some foreign city. In his dreams, he wants to be as far away as possible from New Orleans.

Paradise Chapel

Paradise Chapel. Rustic Louisiana village meant to represent rural Louisiana as a whole. During the summer, the town is a dusty place full of truck drivers transporting interstate goods. For Joel, it is a point of transition in his voyage from New Orleans to his new final destination. His genealogical attachment to the land of the American South is symbolized by the big luggage that belonged to his Confederate great grandfather. Joel is carrying a piece of history with him in a rusty and dusty town of the Deep South that pays no attention to a sensitive boy who is alienated from his own geographical roots.

Noon City

Noon City. Another small Louisiana town. Upon entering Noon City, Joel has a singular experience that is tied to the mysteries and perversions of the location. The town is so rustic that it appears to belong to an era fifty or one hundred years earlier than the time in which the novel is set. The old-fashioned town has a saloon, a confectionery, and a barber shop/dental clinic that is run by a man who is himself badly in need of a shave. With its bizarre cast of characters, Noon City resembles a carnival more than a real town. It is so lacking in culture and refinement that Joel orders a beer in its saloon. In an act of kindness, the proprietor, an obese woman who looks as alien to him as the town itself, instead gives him a soda pop. Joel feels completely out of his element in this place, where similar kindnesses tend to be rare occurrences.

Skully’s Landing

Skully’s Landing. Decaying mansion in Noon City where Joel meets his father for the first time. The old mansion seems to contain more human perversity and atmospheric strangeness than all the rest of Noon City. The moment Joel arrives there, he is alienated from the place because there is no sign of his father’s presence. Instead, he is greeted by his strange bird-killing stepmother and her debauched brother, who give the environment a morbid atmosphere.

Joel hates Skully’s Landing not because it has no running water, proper plumbing, or electricity, but because of the ghosts and strange voices he hears often. He finds no true friends or confidantes, except a good-hearted black woman, whom his stepmother treats as if she were a family slave in the Old South—which seems to lurk just beneath the surface of the place—and a tomboy girl, for whom he develops romantic stirrings. Of all the places to which Joel goes, Skully’s Landing is the worst. It tests his inner spirit and his humanity as he desires so badly to discover human goodness. It is not a place than can provide what Joel needs.

Cloud Hotel

Cloud Hotel. Old hotel in Noon City in which Joel makes a shocking discovery. One morning he wakes up and sees that the mule that has carried him and his uncle to the hotel is dead, hanging by its neck from a ceiling beam. Cloud Hotel, like Skully’s Landing, tests the limits of Joel’s mental endurance. Its perverse sights stand for the aberrations of the Deep South against which Joel can do nothing in this alien place.

Literary Techniques

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As in most Capote novels, locales are described in minute physical detail. These descriptions are impressionistic; they define the essential nature of the place itself and Joel's emotions as he observes his surroundings. For example, shortly after he arrives at Skully's Landing, Joel looks out the window at the garden, which to him reflects the loneliness and despair he sees in the household: "Below, under a fiery surface of sum waves, a garden, a jumbled wreckage of zebrawood and lilac, elephant-ear plant and weeping willow, the lace-leafed limp branches shimmering delicately, and dwarfed cherry trees, like those in oriental prints, sprawled raw and green in the noon heat. It was not a result of simple neglect, this tangled oblong area, but rather the outcome, it appeared, of someone having, in a riotous moment, scattered about it a wild assortment of seed." In this blend of customary Southern garden plants with wild grasses and vines, Joel sees "the primitive, haunted look of a lost ruin" and Capote provides a concrete image of the decay in the Skully-Lee family.

Similarly, descriptions of a character's room provide insight into that individual's personality. When Joel first visits Randolph's room, he does not yet understand that Randolph is not a true artist but an emotionally weak and destructive dilettante, but Capote strongly hints at this situation:

. . . faded gold and tarnished silk reflecting in ornate mirrors, it all made him feel as though he had eaten too much candy. Large as the room was, the barren space in it amounted to no more than one foot; carved tables, velvet chairs, candelabras, a German music box, books and paintings seemed to spill each into the other, as if the objects in a flood had floated through the windows and sunk here.

Capote also uses a welter of physical details and chaotic syntax to create the novel's overall atmosphere of dream and, more frequently, nightmare. In the abandoned house, when Joel believes he is lost and perhaps dying, his surroundings reflect this nightmarish experience:

A boom of silence answered him; here, there, a marginal sound: rain like wings in the chimney, mice feet on fallen glass, maidenly steps of her who always walks on the stair, and wind, opening doors, closing them, wind conversing on the ceiling, blowing its damp sour breath in his face, breathing out its lungs through the rooms: he let himself be carried in its course: his head was light as a balloon, and a hollow-feeling; ice as eyes, thorns as teeth, flannel as tongue; he'd seen sunrise that morning, but, each step directing him nearing a precipice permanent in its shadowed intent (or so it seemed), it was not likely he would see another....

Finally, as in his other novels, Capote extensively uses symbolic objects and characters. For instance, Ed Samson's inability to communicate is seen in the balls he bounces down the stairs to gain the attention of his care-givers. When Joel decides to run away, the bouncing balls are no deterrent. Samson himself appears to be a symbolic character: To Amy he represents the totally dependent charge she has always wanted, to Randolph he is the last link with Pepe Alvarez, and for Joel he is both the fantasy of paternal approval and the guilt of being judged inadequate and thus being rejected. Perhaps Capote intends him to symbolize the spiritual weakness and psychological paralysis of the entire household.

Other symbolic characters include Pepe Alvarez and Mr. Mystery. In Pepe, Randolph sees the security to be found in the elusive perfect relationship, but Pepe has rejected him, and Randolph's attempts to communicate with him are doomed to failure. To Joel, Mr. Mystery represents a similar escape from loneliness, but also a magic antidote for the fear associated with unpleasant situations and everyday reality.

Places such as the swampy forest obviously reflect Joel's confusion and terror, and the ruined Cloud Hotel seems to suggest the grim fate that can befall even the most beautiful and pleasant places; yet Little Sunshine cannot escape its influence, regardless of where he attempts to flee. This hotel has already consumed its owner, just as Skully's Landing appears about to consume Randolph, Amy, and probably Joel.

Equally symbolic are Randolph's blue jay and the colored glasses Idabel won at an earlier carnival. Amy has killed a living bird so that Randolph can construct a beautiful, but lifeless and artificial, facsimile. Neither Amy nor Randolph can understand that the "real" bird is superior. In the same way, once Joe breaks Idabel's glasses, she no longer sees the sideshow "freaks" for the frauds they are, and she becomes infatuated with Miss Wisteria, the heavily painted midget. Again only Joel perceives the reality of the situation.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Other Voices, Other Rooms—Truman Capote's first published novel—was critically acclaimed when it was published in 1948, but its popularity has declined in recent years. Perhaps the complex pattern of symbolism and multiple plot layers are confusing to today's readers. Since the entire narrative is filtered through Joel's consciousness, and much of the action takes place within his mind, the novel is heavily infused with ambiguity, and though its landscape of dream and nightmare may resemble that of modern fantasy literature, its surreal elements can no longer be considered unique or experimental. Readers could profitably analyze this novel in the literary context of its era, noting that its deliberate references to artifice and established constructs show a relationship to both postwar novels and the theater of the absurd. Other themes deserving of such exploration include the isolation of the individual, people's failure to communicate, and characters' search for love and security. Likewise, Capote's views of one's relationship to society and social conventions could be explored, as could his theme of initiation.

1. Like many of Capote's young male protagonists, Joel Knox is the perennial outsider seeking his place in the world. This novel traces his initiation into the adult world and the process by which he establishes himself in that world. What does he learn from each of the adult characters, and what role does he assume as the novel ends?

2. Joel thinks of his situation as parallel to that of Little Kay in "The Snow Queen." What is the role of Little Kay in this story, and how does it resemble Joel's role in this novel?

3. Why do Amy and Randolph bring Joel to Skully's Landing? What role, if any, does Ed have in this decision? How is Joel's life at Skully's Landing different from his life in New Orleans? What does Skully's Landing represent to each of the characters? To the novelist?

4. A major theme of this novel is the search for love. What types of love does Joel observe and experience during the novel? Do any of these types provide the sense of security that Joel and the other characters seem to need? In what ways does each succeed or fail?

5. Like his contemporary, Flannery O'Connor, Capote seems to emphasize the grotesque in his characters. Identify some of these grotesque elements and demonstrate how Capote uses each to achieve a specific comedic or comic effect.

6. Capote divides this novel into three major parts. What is the purpose of this division? Does each part represent a subtle shift in theme or a different stage in Joel's emerging maturity?

7. Failures in communication are a causative element in the characters' alienation from each other and from society as a whole. Some letters are never delivered; others convey messages which are simply deceptive. Identify the situations in which written and oral communication are frustrated in this novel, and explain the effects of each such failure.

8. Capote consistently relies upon symbolism to reinforce his major themes. Identify several concrete symbols—such as Mabel's glasses or Little Sunshine's?—and show how each of these is directly related to the novel's themes.

9. Most of the characters are and remain outsiders, some sympathetic and others less so. How does Capote use the outsider to emphasize the individual's essential alienation in the modern world? What hope, if any, does he suggest?

10. Dreams and illusions play an important role in this novel, as Capote demonstrates the ambiguous nature of reality. Cite specific examples of these dreams and illusions, and show how each reinforces the novel's theme.

Social Concerns

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In this, his first novel, Truman Capote is concerned less about social issues than about personal themes; however, Other Voices, Other Rooms does emphasize the important role of family in the development of the individual. Joel Knox's family is typical of those found in Capote's novels; in effect he has no family. His mother is dead, his father never is really a presence in his life, and he must create his own version of family as he defines his relationship to other individuals, most of whom are as isolated as he. Until he can experience some type of familial love, he remains the outsider and social misfit.

Perhaps because of his own unhappy childhood and his somewhat strained relationship with his mother, Capote often portrays young men who find nurturing, maternal influences in a character other than the biological parent. After the mother's death in Other Voices, Other Rooms, the father can claim Joel for whatever designs the other characters, especially Randolph, have on him, but the father is almost a cipher except as a tool to advance the plot.

Another major concern is the conflict between community values and individual values. Joel first becomes aware of this conflict when he realizes that he is not accepted by his schoolmates in New Orleans, but the dimensions of that conflict are made clear to him shortly after his arrival in Noon City, when the barber, the beautician, and the cafe owner all condemn Idabel Thompkins for her refusal to wear a dress or behave in a ladylike manner. The conflict between individuality and social convention is further developed when Joel meets Idabel's twin sister, Florabel, who observes all the rules of dress and etiquette. One of the links between Idabel and Miss Wisteria is their common perception of themselves as "freaks" or social pariahs. Even Amy Skully eventually succumbs to the rule of society, trying to gain Randolph's favor by telling him how "good" she was: "... I wore my nice grey dress,. . . made little tea-cakes, and the house was so clean, and really she liked me ... ."

Literary Precedents

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The themes of failed communication, misdirected love, insecurity, and isolation of the individual are reminiscent of Carson McCullers' fiction, and the physically grotesque characters who combine caricature and pathos may reflect the additional influence of Erskine Caldwell. The oratorical diction and dense syntax remind the reader of other Southern novelists such as William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. The extensive symbolism resembles the symbolic naturalism of Stephen Crane; and both the extensive use of surreal dream imagery and the manipulation of point of view suggests James Joyce. Although Capote never credited any of these influences, critics and other novelists have pointed out the distinct parallels.


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Capote, Truman. Preface to Other Voices, Other Rooms. New York: Random House, 1968. Reflects on his first novel, explaining the source of its inspiration and discussing its autobiographical nature. Reading Capote’s insights into his own work enriches the reading of the novel.

Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Ballantine, 1989. Well-documented from primary sources, including seven years of interviews with Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms gets extensive coverage, from publication to theme to the novel’s symbolism. Gives Capote’s view on the homosexuality in the novel. Bibliography, notes, and an annotated index.

Moates, Marianne M. A Bridge of Childhood: Truman Capote’s Southern Years. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1989. A compilation of stories about Capote’s childhood, giving background on Joel Knox as an autobiographical character. The pathos in Joel Knox comes from Capote’s investing his adult sense of abandonment in the child character.

Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1970. Illuminates Capote’s insight on his use of imagination. A full chapter on Other Voices, Other Rooms. Provides a plot summary and thorough analysis of themes in the novel.

Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne: 1981. Gives extensive plot summary and analysis of Other Voices, Other Rooms.

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Critical Essays