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City and Country in 'The Prince of Tides'

William Shakespeare's comedies often differentiate between the staid, political atmosphere of the court and the city, and the raucous carnival atmosphere of the forest and the countryside. Often, characters will escape the court to the forest to explore their inner depths and their passions. The result is a dichotomy that permeates several of his plays: even from close textual analysis of one passage in a Shakespeare comedy, the reader is able to discern whether the scene takes place in the court or in the forest.

There is a similar breakdown in Pat Conroy's "Prince of Tides." Scenes and flashbacks switch between New York City and the low-country in South Carolina. Like in Shakespeare's comedies, "Prince of Tides" also makes it very easy to discern exactly where each scene is taking place. In a novel of violence, deception and denial, the low-country in the south represents honesty and understanding whereas New York City represents dangerous denial and calamity.

Tom Wingo, the story's protagonist, is born in the south, in the low-country, and he brandishes a sort of southern simpleness and honesty throughout the novel. Even some of the first lines betray this aspect of southern life:

grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family's table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark. I knew every shrimper by name, and they knew me and sounded their horns when they passed me fishing in the river. (Conroy 1)

So many aspects of the honesty of the south are seen in this passage.

First, Tom Wingo describes his growing-up as slow: everything about the south is slow and relaxed in "The Prince of Tides," except, of course, the one violent night of rape and misery. That one moment breaks the pattern of southern slowness and the characters strive and struggle to escape that moment and return to slowness.

Second, Tom begins to describe his hard working nature. Even as a child, he works in the South Carolina heat, and he works hard. His values are etched in work and work ethic. There is an undeniable honesty about the notion of hard work, and Tom displays that honesty readily on his sleeve.

Third, Tom stresses the importance of family in his life. Even at such a young age, he is entrusted with putting food on the table for his family. Family values run deep in the south, unquestionably deeper than they do - at least in Conroy's world - in New York City.

Fourth, Tom underscores the friendliness of the south: His fellow neighbors and fellow shrimpers know him and are friendly to him. They treat him with respect as a fellow worker and person raised on the same value system even when he was a child. There is no patronizing tone in the fellow shrimpers' acknowledgements of Tom; they respect him for his hard work, his family values, his honest and the slowness of his southern outlook.

Conroy's view of the south contrasts unbelievably with his view of New York City:

It is an art form to hate New York City properly...Every time I submit myself to the snubs and indignities of that swaggering city and set myself adrift among the prodigious crowds, a feeling of displacement, profound and enervating, takes me over, killing all the coded cells of my hard-won singularity. The city marks my soul with a most profane, indelible graffiti...My sister, Savannah, of course, matches my contempt with her own heroic yet perverse allegiance to New York. Even the muggers, drug addicts, winos, and bag ladies, those wounded, limping souls navigating their cheerless passages through the teeming millions, are a major part of the city's ineffable charm for her. It is these damaged birds of paradise, burnt out and sneaking past the mean alleys, that define the city's most extreme limits for her. She finds beauty in these extremities. (Conroy 27)

For Tom, New York is everything that is evil and dishonest, and for Savannah (curiously named after a friendlier southern city) New York is everything that is "real."

First, Tom hints at New York's dishonesty by calling its populace swaggering: indeed, he calls the city itself swaggering. In Tom's view, New York swaggers to hide things, it swaggers because it feels an undue superiority. These are indeed the themes in the novel that permeate the most: hidden secrets and pride. New York represents both those traits.

Second, Tom feels a sense of displacement in New York: he intimates that he does not feel this displacement in the south, but as readers, we know better. Tom and his family will feel displaced until they truly put their demons to rest. If New York represents dishonesty, then there is some dishonesty in the Wingo family with regard to calamitous past events, and that dishonest must be rooted out before the honesty of the south can return, before the pervading feelings of displacement disappear.

And just like Savannah has a perverse attachment to all things New York - to all things ugly and grotesque about New York - she has a perverse attachment to the denial of her past. That is the key ingredient that makes New York a place of such negative energy for Conroy: its teeming millions purport to love their city, but they - the drug addicts and the winos and the bag ladies who slink past alleyways - are in denial, for that is the way in New York.

Tom goes to New York and his subconscious goal is to bring the simplicity and honesty of the low-country to the swagger and denial of New York City. Specifically, he seeks to bring honesty and admission to his sister Savannah:

She carries in her breast an unshakable fealty to all these damaged veterans who survive New York on the fringes, lawless and without hope, gifted in the black arts. They are the city's theater for her. She has written about them in her poetry; she has learned some of the black arts herself and knows well their ruined acreage. (Conroy 27)

Savannah herself is one of these damaged birds of paradise. She sympathizes with the lost and perverse of New York because she too is one among them. Conroy hints at this when he writes that she is skilled in the "black arts" too and understands their consequences.

Savannah is an accomplished writer, and she writes about the perverseness of New York, perhaps as a means of casting out her own demons from paradise. But regardless of how successful she becomes, she cannot chase away the demons through writing; hence, her suicide attempt. She seeks to take her own life to escape from her demons, to fly free as the bird of paradise she used to be, perhaps, to extend our analogy, to return to the slowness and honesty of southern charm.

Finally, Tom prevails upon Savannah, and in the process of saving her, he inadvertently saves himself as well. He brings the honesty of the south to his sister, and thereby cures the problem of displacement too. Even though Tom lives in the south, as we discussed, he too feels the displacement of New York in his life. This is because he too shares Savannah's demons and neither one of them has properly put these demons to rest.

The last paragraph of the book truly puts the evils of New York to rest: Tom is home in the south, and both he and Savannah have a clear conscience and they feel no displacement. They only feel the pure honesty and work ethic and family values of the south:

Each night, when practice is over and I'm driving home through the streets of Charleston, I ride with the top down on my Volkswagen convertible. It is always dark and the air is crisp with autumn and the wind is rushing through my hair. At the top of the bridge with the stars shining above the harbor, I look to the north and wish again that there were two lives apportioned to every man and woman. Behind me the city of Charleston simmers in the cold elixirs of its own incalculable beauty and before me my wife and children are waiting for me to arrive home. It is in their eyes that I acknowledge my…[continue]

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