The major theme of The Prince of Tides is the damaging effects of denial and repression and the need of the individual to understand and accept the past in order to function in the present. Lila stands out in the novel as the prime instigator of denial in her constant demands that the children never talk about family problems. Henry is also guilty, even managing to convince himself that he has never abused his wife or children. Such repression leads the Wingo children to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, guilt, and anger, and manifests itself ultimately in self-destructiveness. The novel suggests that release occurs only through acceptance and confession of reality. While the ending of the novel does not suggest that Tom and Savannah will “live happily ever after,” both seem to have experienced significant healing and to have reached a level of self-acceptance that provides a sense of hope and peace.
Another theme that emerges in the novel is racism. Amid classmates who are hostile and cruel to Benji Washington, the first black admitted to Colleton High School, Tom is bullied by Savannah into befriending Benji. Ultimately, through Tom’s work with Benji on the football field, Benji gains acceptance in the school and the community.
Conroy also uses The Prince of Tides to demonstrate a love for land, sea, and nature and to attack those who destroy nature in the name of progress. Reese Newbury, the greedy land-grabber and seller, stands in remarkable contrast to Luke, the prince of tides, who sacrifices his life trying to defend the takeover of the island by the government to build plants to manufacture nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel. On the whole, the novel seems to reflect Conroy’s discontent with the twentieth century and with its destruction of place, innocence, and family.
As has come to be expected of Conroy, he examines themes of family, marriage, religion, social status. Southern culture, sibling and parental relationships, and the interdependence of spiritual, mental and physical health. Most of all, he emphasizes storytelling itself.
The rich culture of the South acts as a backdrop for a modern drama in which characters enact roles seemingly shaped for them. Savannah's psychosis, in which she is literally haunted by personalities and events from her past, acts as a center for the various mental and spiritual problems suffered by all the Wingos. The novel showcases the varying abilities of the human psyche to adapt to the worst of conditions; some manage to emerge unscathed, others reach near-destruction.
Tom is caught between the various roles the South demands that its males play. His father expects the sons to be tough and is harsh in his discipline when Tom doesn't accept that role. Tom's mother encourages his sensitive side, and Tom sees himself as a failure at both. Luke was the epitomy of Southern macho; Savannah an accomplished poet. Tom is merely a high school football coach who teaches English and does not communicate well with his accomplished physician wife. All aspects of the Wingo family and the children's lives are dysfunctional, and the novel's purpose is to explain why.
An important part of Conroy's depiction of Southern culture is ritual and religion. The Wingos are Catholic, and as the novel develops, Catholicism, with its iconology, revering of saints and sacraments of confession and baptism (symbolizing a cleansing and a rebirth) acts as an apt symbol for Tom's mental and spiritual rebirth through the relation of the "myths" of his family.
Spousal relationships emphasize the fragility of love where trust is lacking. Tom and his wife, Sallie, have lost faith in one another, as have Susan, and her famous violinist husband. All four members of the two couples turn to lovers for sustenance; Tom and Sallie finally come to terms at the end of the novel;...
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