You Can't Go Home Again

by Thomas Wolfe

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What are the key plot elements in You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe?

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At his death, author Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) left behind voluminous writings and manuscripts in a style that might be called “autobiographical fiction.” You Can’t Go Home Again is an edited version of his writings, published posthumously in 1940. The work is divided into seven books crafted into a single story that can be summed up by his famous quote reflected in the title of his classic:

And he knew now, as he had never known before, the priceless measure of his loss... He saw now that you can't go home again—not ever. There was no road back.

Determining the literary elements of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution that unify the plot in this novel requires an examination of all seven books.

The exposition is a literary device used to supply the reader with essential background information about characters, events, and settings. This information is found in book 1 as protagonist George Webber returns to his childhood home town to attend a funeral:

From his early childhood, when he was living like an orphan with his Joyner relatives back in Libya Hill, he had dreamed that one day he would go to New York and there find love and fame and fortune. For several years New York had been the place that he called home, and love was his already; and now he felt, with the assurance of deep conviction, that the time for fame and fortune was at hand.

The rising action is a series of incidents that catch the reader’s interest, including decisions made by the protagonist and other characters and the background circumstances that create unsuspected events leading to a climax. Wolfe presents several incidents that advance the novel quickly. First, George learns that his manuscript submitted to a publisher has been well-received. However, when he returns to his southern home town, he is met with disfavor and immediately recognizes that the atmosphere has changed drastically. When he returns to New York, he begins to see the changes there as well. He breaks off his relationship with an old flame, Esther, as he can no longer tolerate the attitudes of the wealthy and the lifestyle that goes with it. The protagonist subsequently moves to England, where he observes once again his disdain for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, which is in stark contrast to his memories of life in his hometown of Libya Hill.

The climax, or crisis, in the novel occurs when the tension in the story reaches its pinnacle, just before the falling off of the action. In book 5, After George moves to England, he meets another writer, but he soon becomes disillusioned once again. He realizes how much he hates the fame and fortune he observes, and his path to resolution is paved:

And now the lights were up, and there against the sky George saw again the vast corrupted radiance of the night--the smoke, the fury, and the welter of London's unending life. And after a little while the car was threading its way through the jungle warren of that monstrous sprawl, and at last it turned into Ebury Street and stopped. George got out and thanked McHarg; they shook hands, exchanged a few words, and then said good-bye. The little driver shut the door, touched his cap respectfully, and climbed back into his seat. The big car purred and drove off smoothly into the darkness.

George stood at the kerb and looked after it until it disappeared. And he knew that he and McHarg might meet and speak and pass again, but never as they had in this, their first meeting; for something had begun which now was finished, and henceforth they would have to take their separate courses, he to his own ending, McHarg to his—and which to the better one no man knew.

The falling action in the novel is the point at which events begin to lead the protagonist to the resolution of the conflict in the story. In this novel, it occurs after George moves to Germany:

George had not been in Germany since 1928 and the early months of 1929, when he had had to spend weeks of slow convalescence in a Munich hospital after a fight in a beer hall. Before that foolish episode, he had stayed for a while in a little town in the Black Forest, and he remembered that there had been great excitement because an election was being held. The state of politics was chaotic, with a bewildering number of parties, and the Communists polled a surprisingly large vote. People were disturbed and anxious, and there seemed to be a sense of impending calamity in the air.

This time, things were different. Germany had changed.

In the shadow of Hitler and the Nazi regime, George is now certain that places and their memories always change. He returns to America with sorrow and hope.

Finally, the dénouement, or resolution, that occurs in book 7 ties up the loose ends of the novel. George reflects on the decisions he has made in his life, good and bad. He now understands that one “can’t go home again” because if a person returns to a place from the past, it will not be the same as the memory of it. He recognizes that family, childhood homes, romantic love, dreams of fame, foreign sanctuaries, and all things that appear everlasting are in a constant state of flux. The building blocks of one’s memory change all the time.

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