Because Tom is the narrator as well as the protagonist in The Prince of Tides, all the characters are developed through his eyes and become significant primarily as they affect him. Scarred by the traumatic events of his childhood, Tom finds his life coming apart as the novel opens. His attempts to aid his psychotic sister, however, enable him to come to grips with his past and provide him with the self-confidence to face the future. At the end of the novel, he is able to say truthfully that he is a survivor.
Savannah, Tom’s highly intelligent and ultra-sensitive sister, has apparently suffered the most psychological damage from the repression of reality practiced by the Wingo family. Three days after the rape, which Lila makes the children swear never happened, Savannah first attempts suicide. Soon thereafter, full of bitter hatred for her parents and for the South, Savannah leaves South Carolina for New York. Although she establishes herself as a poet, Savannah cannot escape her past. Following Luke’s death, she first assumes a new identity, that of a lesbian friend who has committed suicide, and then she again attempts suicide herself. With Tom and Susan Lowenstein’s help, she moves toward recovery.
Luke as a child assumes the role of protector for the younger twins. Compassionate, courageous, and a loner, Luke is a physically strong outdoor person who wants to spend his life as a shrimper. When the government takeover of Colleton County threatens to destroy that life, Luke singlehandedly battles governmental officials and temporarily delays the project, but he is ultimately killed by a government agent.
Henry, although he occasionally gives evidence of love for his children, is generally violent, unpredictable, and cruel. Physically abusive to both wife and children, he is nevertheless desperate for Lila’s respect. His repeated commercial ventures invariably fail, however, and elicit bitter scorn from Lila, the least sympathetic character in the Wingo family. Seemingly protective of her children against their father’s violent temper, Lila actually contributes instead to the dysfunctional nature of the family with her hypocrisy, selfish manipulations, obsession with social prominence, and repression of the truth. After divorcing Henry, she manipulates Reese Newbury, one of the county’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens and the Wingo family’s bitterest enemy, into marrying her by nursing his first wife until her death from cancer and by using the Wingo family island, which Newbury has long coveted, as bait.
Susan Lowenstein is a successful professional who feels like a failure as a wife and mother. Through her relationship with Tom, however, she regains a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
The Prince of Tides' narrator, Tom J. Wingo, is also its main character. Raised by parents who fought constantly with one another and their children, he grew up fiercely loyal to his twin sister, Savannah, and his older brother Luke. Although mistreated both physically and emotionally by his parents, he loved them both when he was a child. He says of his parents, "They were remarkable in so many ways that the gifts they bestowed almost equaled the havoc they so thoughtlessly wreaked."
Tom has failed at teaching, coaching, and husbanding. Fired from his job following a mental breakdown caused by Luke's death, he can no longer communicate with his physician wife, Sallie, Their relationship disintegrates as he clings to the affection of his three daughters. He travels to New York at the request of Savannah's psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, in order to help the psychiatrist analyze Savannah's self-destructive tendencies. Tom relates story after story of his childhood, revealing many of his own destructive tendencies in the process. He eventually finds renewal through his...
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