The Source of Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Source of Light by Reynolds Price is a sensitive and saddening exploration of the coming of age of a young writer, Hutch Mayfield. At the opening of the book, Hutch has just quit his job as a teacher in a Virginia prep school, having felt the need to see if he has the ability to become a writer, to search for self-knowledge and to explore his talents before he begins to go downhill, a decline that his grandmother assures him afflicts Mayfield men after age twenty-five. Despite his disbelief in this premature dotage, Hutch does see his nearing twenty-fifth birthday as a turning point, and he makes plans to study for a year at Oxford, England, and to combine the study with a good deal of sight-seeing.

The complication in the novel—one which affects not only its plot but its structure as well—is the terminal lung cancer which is rapidly killing Hutch’s father, Rob. The novel is divided into three parts: Book One, “The Principle of Perturbations,” which takes place as Hutch is preparing to leave for England in the summer of 1955 before he knows that his father is dying; Book Two, which contains the event of Rob’s death in December, 1955, entitled “The Rotation of Venus”; and Book Three, “The Center of Gravity,” which tells of the aftermath of the death and its effect on Hutch. This last part covers February and March of 1956. The story is told primarily through letters sent from one character to another. These letters and the surrounding sections of exposition function symbolically: the communications network by which the letters are delivered reflects a network of emotion and concern that spreads from the Southern United States to England.

The primary relationship in this network is that between Hutch and his father. Hutch’s mother, Rachel, died when the boy was born, so for all of his life Hutch’s main source of emotional strength has been his father. Although many other relatives and friends have loved him, his father Rob has been the one with whom he has shared his hopes and dreams: Hutch and Rob have clung together as the only surviving Mayfield men. Hutch and his father are much alike in attitudes and desires; both are very affectionate, highly-sexed men. This particular emotion is also the area of their main difference: Rob’s sexual desires have been heterosexual, but Hutch has found sexual love and release not only with women but also with other men.

Despite the love of the two for each other, their relationship has not been without problems. Each sees himself as living for the other, yet each strives to achieve some sort of personal life separate from but not exclusive of the other. Rob senses that his son will give up the long-planned year in Europe if he discovers that his father is seriously ill, so he allows Hutch to go to Oxford ignorant of the severity of the disease.

Beyond this primary relationship, The Source of Light explores many other contacts and connections between people. Many of these subsidiary relationships are with the older generation of women who have lived with and loved the Mayfields. Grandmother Eva Kendal Mayfield, Rob’s mother, is the woman with whom Rob spends his last months while he prepares to die. She hides her sorrow from long habit, knowing that the child to whom she gave life will precede her into death. She and Rob have been close all through Rob’s life, yet this relationship too is not ideal. Eva is a woman who finds it hard to demonstrate physically her affection. Rob’s father had deserted her many years before, when the boy was only a year old. Eva then turned her sorrow inward, and had been unable to give her son the love that he badly needed. Eva is not a cold woman, but a very self-contained one. She keeps both pain and joy within herself, not allowing others to help her bear her grief or share her gladness. It was this inwardness, this reserve, that had driven Rob’s father away from her, and it is the same quality that Rob does not understand. His inability to understand Eva’s reticence is ironic, because he shows much the same secretiveness in hiding his illness from Hutch.

Another older woman, one of that generation whose personalities fill the book, is Miss Polly Drewry, the woman to whom Rob’s father went after he left Eva. Unlike Eva, Polly is a warm and loving woman whose strength of character and selflessness forbid her making any claim on the man whose home and love she shared for many years. Both the son and the grandson of that man find peace in her company: she gives her love as easily as she dispenses cups of coffee, and it is Polly who in the end receives the family ring which first Rob and then Hutch gave to women whom they loved and lost.

Polly’s love is outgoing, but Alice Matthews soaks up love like a well-used blotter. Alice had been a friend of Hutch’s mother, Rachel, before Rachel met and married Rob. Rachel, delicate and close to unbalanced, had come to the sanatorium run by Alice’s father. There the two women—one nineteen,...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

America. CXLV, October 17, 1981, p. 224.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 577.

National Review. XXXIII, September 18, 1981, p. 1084.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 26, 1981, p. 3.

Saturday Review. VIII, April, 1981, p. 72.