Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Percy has always been concerned in his fiction with the mental and spiritual health of persons in a society that sends confusing, distorted signals about reality. In Percy’s Love in the Ruins (1971), science and psychology received the brunt of his satire, while in this novel the excesses of Southern religiosity are more prominent, but both novels have an underlying theme of the quest for sanity, truth, and spiritual renewal.

Percy himself is familiar with the intellectual situation of having a foot in the camps of both science and religion. He is a converted Catholic and identifies himself as a Christian novelist. He is also educated as a physician, specifically as a pathologist. Thus, his criticism of institutional biases is, to some extent, from the inside.

The Second Coming demonstrates Percy’s interest in semiotics, the study of signs, and probably in phenomenology. Allie’s difficulty with speech seems to have something to do with the attempt to express phenomenological reality. This effort to speak truth might theoretically, at least, be aided by a loss of memory for familiar ways of evading truth with borrowed, trite interpretations. Percy has been very interested in existential thought, especially the work of Søren Kierkegaard, with his insistence on the nonrational leap of faith.

Like other Southern writers, Percy often treats the South as a microcosm of American experience. The South was the last region of the country to undergo modernization and industrialization, and the process was accordingly accelerated; thus, one finds jammed together in the South both archaic prejudices and up-to-the-minute amoral commercialism, a combination which, from the viewpoint of a satirist, may offer the worst of two worlds. Nevertheless, it is still a place where the religious quest can be seriously pursued.