Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987
The Prince of Tides is a long novel of twenty-seven chapters framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Strewn with autobiographical overtones, the novel recounts the life of the fictional Wingo family of Colleton, South Carolina, as seen through the eyes of narrator and protagonist Tom Wingo. Through his attempts...
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The Prince of Tides is a long novel of twenty-seven chapters framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Strewn with autobiographical overtones, the novel recounts the life of the fictional Wingo family of Colleton, South Carolina, as seen through the eyes of narrator and protagonist Tom Wingo. Through his attempts to help a psychiatrist save Tom’s suicidal twin sister, Savannah, by telling the family story, he learns to face and accept his past and thus begins to set his own life in order.
In the prologue, Tom’s ambivalence about both his birthplace and his parents emerges in his recollection of his childhood as “part elegy, part nightmare.” He proclaims that his entire life has been dominated by the South Carolina low country tides and marshes and by his warring parents.
The novel then begins with news from Tom’s mother, Lila Wingo Newbury, that his sister Savannah, a famous poet, has tried to kill herself again and is in a psychiatric hospital in New York. Tom is struggling to survive himself, having suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of his older brother Luke. He has lost his job as a high school English teacher and football coach, and he realizes that his marriage to his college sweetheart Sallie, now a successful physician, is falling apart. Nevertheless, Tom leaves immediately for New York to help Savannah. A visit from him disturbs Savannah severely, however, and her psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, forbids additional contact and urges Tom instead to assist in Savannah’s recovery by telling her everything about Savannah and the Wingo family. Seemingly in no particular order, Tom begins to pour out the stories of his and Savannah’s past, stories that reveal a violently abusive father and a mother obsessed with social position and appearances. Tom does have happy memories of hours the three children spent with their father on his shrimp boat and of magical moments when their mother took them out to see the sun set and the moon rise almost simultaneously. Most of the stories, however, focus on an almost implausible series of events that Tom justifies by maintaining that “extraordinary things” happened to the Wingo family.
The most traumatic event, withheld until near the end of the novel, occurs the summer after the three Wingo children are graduated from high school. Three escaped convicts force their way into the Wingo home and rape Savannah, Lila, and Tom. They are saved from death by Luke’s arriving at the right moment and releasing their pet Bengal tiger to attack and assist in the violent killing of all three rapists. Lila then insists on burying the bodies, cleaning up the mess, and pretending nothing ever happened. Three days later, Savannah attempts suicide for the first time.
Dozens of other episodes fill the novel, as Tom recounts a childhood filled with pain and unhappiness but with a strong bond of love among the three children. Among the stories Tom tells are those that are obviously family legends—the marriage and separation of his grandparents, the dramatic events of his and Savannah’s birth during a hurricane, the story of his father’s escape from Germany during World War II. Many episodes may seem at first to be digressions, but all serve to provide a broader understanding of Tom’s background. Several focus on the paternal grandparents, perhaps the most grotesque characters of the Wingo family. Every year on Good Friday, Grandfather Amos Wingo carries a ninety-pound cross through town and gets arrested for obstructing traffic. Additionally, in his late seventies or early eighties, he begins to have difficulty driving his car, and a patrolman tries to revoke his license. Amos then water-skis for forty miles to prove that he is still capable of driving. An equally fascinating character, Grandmother Tolitha Wingo left her husband Amos when Henry was a young boy, spent years married to another man and, following his death, traveled around the world for several years before finally returning to her first husband. In one of the most humorous episodes in the novel, Tolitha decides to choose her coffin, crawls into the coffin to try it out, and subsequently scares a town busybody into hysteria by sitting up unexpectedly in the coffin.
Among the innumerable tragic events in the life of the Wingo family, the one that has pushed Tom and Savannah into their current state of despair is Luke’s death and their mother’s indirect role in that death. Lila turns the family island over to her husband, Reese Newbury, who sells it to the government for use by the Atomic Energy Commission. Luke, with his love for the shrimper’s life, begins a one-man rebellion against the government that leads to his being shot by a government agent.
Interspersed with Tom’s stories of his and Savannah’s past are sections devoted to the present time and the growing romantic relationship between Tom and Susan Lowenstein. As Tom reveals his own suffering, he becomes aware of Lowenstein’s unhappy marriage and of her sense of failure as a mother. At Susan’s request, he begins coaching her bitterly unhappy son to play football. The growing relationship with Susan enables Tom to see himself again as capable of love, and his success in working with her son Bernard resurrects his love for coaching and his belief in himself as a teacher. Despite his love for and desire to remain with Susan, Tom also feels a strong commitment to his wife and three daughters back in South Carolina, and when Sallie calls and asks Tom to return, he does so. The epilogue suggests that Tom’s return to his wife and children and to teaching and coaching have been successful, and in the final lines, he pays tribute to Lowenstein for making this renewed life possible. A reunion of Savannah, Tom, and Henry provides some possibility also for family reconciliation.