Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Louis Auchincloss, himself a Wall Street attorney and a product of Groton, among the most eminent of American preparatory schools, has often used such schools in his fiction to help delineate the background formation of his characters. Never before or since, however, has he so successfully presented the implicit irony, or even absurdity, of the existence in the United States of an educational alternative frankly based on the elitist British public school yet ostensibly dedicated to the ideals of democracy. Through the character, actions, and career of Frank Prescott, Auchincloss shows both the benefits and the dangers of such a hybrid; the dangers are perhaps most evident to Prescott himself who, perceiving the true nature of his accomplishment at the end of his life, honestly believes that he has failed in his appointed task.

Through his skillful use of multiple narrators and viewpoints, Auchincloss in The Rector of Justin also underscores the elusive nature of human truth, necessarily subjective as well as relative, and the inevitable moral blindness implicit in any and all human endeavor. Frank Prescott’s ideal of democracy, which he supposes to be doubly grounded in Holy Scripture and the United States Constitution, proves considerably more ephemeral than he might have imagined, given the simple fact that both documents lend themselves to a multiplicity of readings. In the end, Prescott no doubt stands convicted of failure, not because he failed to meet his goals but rather because he failed to sustain the human relationships that he sacrificed in favor of his elusive dream.