The Prince of Tides
The Prince of Tides
by Pat Conroy
THE LITERARY WORK
In an effort to save the life of his suicidal twin sister, Savannah, Tom Wingo revisits his childhood through psychotherapy.
Framed by a series of flashbacks, The Prince of Tides actually takes place in two separate settings and two different eras. When Tom Wingo visits his sister’s psychologist in modern-day New York, he only intends to provide emotional support for Savannah. Through his retelling of childhood memories, however, Tom uncovers a past that hurt both his sister and himself. Conroy, born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1945, recalls the Southern setting of his own past as he records the Wingos’ childhood in the small town of Colleton, South Carolina.
Rural South Carolina life
Much of the novel focuses on a contrast between the lazy pace of a small town in South Carolina and the frenetic energy of New York City. Even after spending a summer discovering New York, its main character opts to return to the comforts of the South. Conroy, a native Southerner himself, paints a vivid picture of rural South Carolina. While the modern era brought rapid urban growth to the state, South Carolina nonetheless boasted a rural population greater in proportion than that of the rest of the country. A 1980 census reports that rural residents constituted 46 percent of South Carolinians, while they represented only 27 percent of the population of the nation as a whole. However, the rural population of South Carolina grew at about only one-third the rate of the remainder of the state between 1950 and 1980. This would account for the impression that the novel’s town of Colleton seems to change little over the course of Tom’s life.
Tom’s father, a lifelong shrimper, has a profession shared by many South Carolinians. In 1982 the commercial seafood industry in South Carolina earned over $24 million, and shellfish accounted for about three-fourths of this total. The shellfish industry, however, is not merely a product of modern times. Both Native Americans and early European settlers used oysters and shrimp as food staples. During the 1930s, the industry exploded with shrimping fleets, docks, and icehouses popping up across South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Today shrimping represents one-half the value of South Carolina’s seafood catch. While modern shrimpers still rely on old-fashioned instinct and experience, they now also employ such technologically advanced equipment as radar and electronic navigators. Other advances in the shrimping industry involve aquaculture, or the farming of sea creatures. In 1984 the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department opened a center for aqua-culture development in Colleton County. Although still in the experimental stages, some predict that such farming could represent the future of Southern shrimping.
South Carolina and nuclear development
In The Prince of Tides Tom and Savannah Wingo experience several harrowing events over the course of their lives. Perhaps none of these touches them so deeply as the death of their older brother, Luke. Luke Wingo might have lived a peaceful life in Colleton, South Carolina, had the federal government not annexed the county for the building of a plutonium plant. Firmly against the production of such a lethal substance and concerned about its effects on the local marshlands, Luke leads a one-man crusade against the governmental developers. In the end, he loses his life to this cause.
While in real life the production of plutonium never actually sparked such a contentious situation in South Carolina, the question of nuclear energy and its environmental dangers did provoke the community. During the 1950s and 1960s, atomic energy emerged as a source of cheap power. South Carolina’s first nuclear power plant, the Carolinas-Virginia test reactor, opened in 1963. Closed only four years later, the plant nonetheless marked a new era in South Carolina’s energy production. By the late 1980s, nuclear energy provided approximately 45 percent of the state’s electrical power. This figure outdistanced the national average by three and one-half times.
Along with its growth in popularity, however, nuclear energy raised questions concerning environmental safety. The problem of nuclear waste soon became an issue of heated debate. While such agencies as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission monitored the handling of debris, South Carolina never designated a site on which to store high-level nuclear waste. Instead, plants stored their own byproducts on their business grounds. This, in turn, led to concerns over the possible contamination of areas located near nuclear power stations.
Communities also worried about the cost of nuclear power. Three units built at the Oconee Nuclear Station during the 1970s, for instance, cost South Carolina some $493 million. Nonetheless, with nuclear power providing half the state’s energy, the production of it could not be abandoned. Profitable businesses depended on this energy in real life. And, as Luke sardonically remarks in the novel, “Whenever Big Money goes up against the Environment, Big Money always wins” (Conroy, The Prince of Tides, p. 637).
Fears such as Luke’s about the danger of nuclear power to people were validated, although not in the United States. On April 26, 1986, a massive explosion and fire occurred at a Soviet nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Killing thirty persons immediately, the event is said to have hospitalized or killed some five hundred others in the following weeks; other estimates blame as many as eight thousand deaths on the human-error accident. The Soviet government evacuated citizens living within a eighteen-and-a-half-mile radius of the plant. There were global consequences as well. It was predicted that Western Europe would experience 5,000 extra cancer deaths in the next fifty years because of the accident and that it would cause genetic problems and mental retardation in those years as well (Medvedev, p. 212). The radiation spread, contaminating lambs in the United Kingdom, reindeer in Sweden, leafy vegetables in Austria, and milk produced by cattle that grazed on contaminated plant life in several countries, including Sweden, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Poland.
The Chernobyl accident, and its devastating effects, roused anti-nuclear feeling in the United States. A Washington Post-ABC poll published in 1986 (also the year of the accident and of the publication of The Prince of Tides) reported that 78 percent of those surveyed opposed building new nuclear plants in the United States (up from 67 percent in 1985); 40 percent wanted existing plants to be phased out. Thus Luke Wingo’s an-tinuclear stance—while singling him out in Colleton—was by no means an unusual or inexplicable one at the time.
Divorce and the modern American family
In the novel, not one of the Wingos maintains what society would call a normal or healthy marriage. Mr. Wingo abuses his wife and their children, while Mrs. Wingo forces emotional and psychological repression upon the family. Although Tom does not have such overt problems in his own marriage, his inability to communicate drives his wife into the arms of another man. With a divorce rate of 50 percent in the United States during the 1980s, the Wingos hardly represent a social aberration.
Society had become far more accepting of divorce by the 1980s. In the novel, Tom’s grandmother divorces his grandfather during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Divorce was a rare occurrence in those days, and she finds herself ostracized from her community. By the time that the marriage of Tom’s parents ends some forty years later, however, a broken marriage seems to shock no one. A more tolerant attitude toward divorce had become prevalent in American society by that point. Back in the 1960s, domestic relations court judges rotated quickly out of divorce assignments because they considered these sessions too emotional and vindictive. By the 1980s, however, a new perception had emerged, as shown by the attitude of one divorce court judge. He regarded his work as critically important. “The future of families and children” he said, “depends on what I do” (Bohannan, p. 24). The government also began to accept the likelihood that a fair number of marriages would end in divorce at this time. By 1985 only two states, Illinois and South Dakota, still required the establishment of “marital fault” in the granting of divorce. All other forty-eight states simply acknowledged “irreconcilable differences” as a legitimate reason to terminate a marriage. While in the novel Tom goes home to repair his own failing marriage, he also entertains the possibility of divorce. This candid attitude reflects only too well the realistic alternatives for troubled marriages of the time.
The growing acceptance of divorce and divorced people reflects a more fundamental change in American society over the time span covered by the novel (1940s-1980s). During the 1960s and 1970s in particular, attitudes toward sex, marriage, and divorce became considerably more liberal. The infidelity committed by Tom’s wife in the novel seems indicative of this trend. There was a new frankness about sex in books, movies, and advertising, and the rate of adultery skyrocketed. A 1983 study by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, American Couples, reported that 21 percent of women committed adultery after a couple years of marriage.
In tandem with changing attitudes about sex, marriage, and divorce came psychological therapies that stressed self-fulfillment and personal growth. They superseded earlier theories that had promoted adjustment and compromise as the solution to a person’s problems. These earlier theories—formulated and popularized by Alfred Adler and Dale Carnegie, among others—called for people to suppress their impulses, avoid confrontation, and defer to the wishes of others. In contrast, newer philosophies—championed, for example, by Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm—called for people to “get in touch with their feelings and freely voice their opinions, even if this generated feelings of guilt” (Hawes and Nybakken, p. 188).
Further support for this approach to life came from the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, which attacked the notion that wives should defer to the needs of their husbands and children at the expense of fulfilling themselves. Their arguments were bolstered by evidence they uncovered of unhappy families who, behind the image of unity, hid some gruesome realities, such as the ones suffered at the Wingo household in The Prince of Tides.
The opening of The Prince of Tides finds Tom Wingo at home in Sullivans Island, South Carolina, with his wife and their three young daughters. Although the family portrait seems cheerful at first, the reader soon discovers the dysfunctional underside of the Wingos’ marriage. When Tom’s estranged mother calls to notify him that his twin sister, Savannah, has attempted yet another suicide, Tom’s life begins to unravel. Within the same twenty-four-hour span, his wife, Susan, tells him that she has been having an affair with another man. She cites Tom’s emotional coldness and self-pity as her reason for seeking affection outside their marriage. Fired from his coaching and teaching job over a year earlier, Tom has yet to locate new employment. He eventually alienates himself from his wife through his own guilt and frustration. Unable to piece together his broken life, Tom leaves for New York in an attempt to help Savannah put her own life in order.
Although Savannah has lived in New York for over two decades, her brother rarely comes to the city. Compared to his native South, New York seems cold and distant. Nonetheless, Tom prepares himself to stay throughout the duration of Savannah’s recovery. During his first day in New York, Tom visits with his sister’s psychologist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein. A serious woman, Lowen-stein seems to have nothing in common with Tom, nor does she warm up to his casual, sarcastic manner. As Savannah has not maintained any type of relationship with either of her parents, however, Lowenstein has no one else to whom she can turn. While at Lowenstein’s office, Tom hears an audio tape of Savannah’s mental breakdown. A famous poet, Savannah recites fantastic imagery and figures, even in the midst of a psychological collapse. Unable to understand her patient’s references, Lowenstein asks Tom’s aid in picking apart the tape. With Savannah in a catatonic state, her brother is the only person in a position to aid in her recovery. Although he does not really like the doctor, Tom agrees to meet with Lowenstein once a week in order to help his sister.
During these sessions, Tom recalls memories from his and Savannah’s childhood. He tells of their upbringing on Melrose Island in Colleton County, South Carolina. The children of a poor shrimper and a housewife, Tom and Savannah knew no real material wealth. With their older brother Luke, however, they found their own entertainment among the local marshes and woodlands. Were it not for their parents, the Wingo children’s lives might have been quite pleasant. Unfortunately, Mr. Wingo was prone to abusing his wife and children. On more than one occasion, they suffered physical injury at his hands and feared for their lives. Mrs. Wingo, a strong woman in many respects, never summoned the courage to leave her husband. Practical by nature, she realized the improbability of a single, uneducated woman raising three children on her own in the American South. She instead created a household of denial in which the children were forbidden to discuss the abuse, even with each other. Mrs. Wingo operated on the belief that if one told oneself something never happened, then in fact it never did.
Despite this odd, even harmful arrangement, the Wingo children still might have led relatively normal lives had they not become the victims of a heinous, violent attack. One day three escaped convicts broke into the Wingos’ home while Mr. Wingo and Luke were away. The men raped Mrs. Wingo, Tom, and Savannah, and would have killed them had Luke not returned early from work. Luke surprised the attackers with his own assault, and the Wingos eventually killed the three men. Under Mrs. Wingo’s direction, they buried the bodies in the woods and erased all evidence of the crime. She forbade the children to speak of the event, even to their father. Realizing the social stigma attached to rape, she feared becoming an outcast in the town and possibly in her own home. Forced into silence, Savannah made her first attempt at taking her own life that afternoon.
A few months after the attack, Tom left for college and Savannah moved to New York. Luke stayed in Colleton to join his father in the shrimping business. With the children grown and out of the house, Mrs. Wingo left her husband and filed for divorce. A social climber, she managed to marry the richest man in Colleton, and she gave to him Melrose Island, the property she had acquired in the divorce. Mrs. Wingo’s new husband then sold his property holdings in Colleton to the federal government. With plans to build a plutonium plant in the county, the government paid handsomely for the land. It quickly bought out all other residents and forced the entire town to relocate. Everyone went along with the government’s wishes except for Luke Wingo. Dedicated to his homeland, Luke fought for the small South Carolina county. He began a one-man revolution, blowing up construction sites and bridges, ambushing the government’s efforts. Although his family pleaded with him, he refused to surrender. Eventually, a Marine sniper’s bullet ended Luke’s crusade and life. In his memory, Savannah penned a poem she entitled “The Prince of Tides.” She wanted the public to know of the lengths to which her brother went in order to save their corner of the world.
Tom retells this injured family history to Lowenstein over the course of an entire summer. As the sessions go on, the two eventually become friends and lovers. Lowenstein helps Tom to face his painful past, making it possible for him to open up to people once again. Together, they help Savannah leave the psychiatric institution and take steps toward healing. Neither Tom nor Savannah blame their parents for the imperfections that they handed down to their children. At the summer’s end, Tom returns to South Carolina to try to repair his broken marriage.
Long-term impact of childhood abuse
In the novel, Savannah Wingo’s past haunts her with vivid hallucinations and imagined voices. Although an adult, she still cannot escape the abuses that she suffered as a child. The attack by the three escaped convicts only added to her torment. Tom and Savannah’s mother, a Southern woman who feared small-town gossip, later forbade mention of the rapes. During the time when they occurred, the early 1960s, sexual abuse was not yet an appropriate topic of conversation. Only later, as adults, could the Wingos begin to explore their traumatic pasts.
While in the novel all three family members suffer sexual abuse, it is Savannah who emerges most traumatized by it later in life. Her reaction to her earlier physical abuse is not uncommon. Contemporary psychotherapy posits that the effects of childhood abuse can be broken down into four parts: traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness, and stigmatization. Savannah’s problems in the novel can be classified into these categories. More specifically, “traumatic sexualization” refers to the inappropriate development of a child’s sexuality—possibly an association of sex with painful memories. As an adult, Savannah maintains no close sexual relationships. She connects sexual encounters only with pain and suffering. “Betrayal,” according to psychologists, means the discovery that a loved one has caused harm. A child experiences betrayal from either the offender or a family member who does not protect or believe the child. Mrs. Wingo’s insistence on “forgetting” the rape could easily be viewed as betrayal in Savannah’s eyes. As an adult, she does not even communicate with her mother. The third portion of the dynamic, “powerlessness,” refers to the notion that the child victim of abuse feels no control over his or her environment. Powerlessness becomes an element of Savannah’s later life in the form of mental hallucinations over which she has no control. “Stigmatization” of the child, the final element, refers to society’s ostracism of victims of sexual abuse and the corresponding negative self-image of the victim. Researchers find that these feelings often multiply when the abuse is kept secret. Certainly this holds true for the Wingo children. While, eventually, they do begin to heal, both Tom and Savannah find difficulty in escaping the effects of their childhood trauma. Only through modern counseling procedures can the Wingos attempt to put their pasts behind them.
Though born in Atlanta, Georgia, Pat Conroy grew up in various homes along the southeast coast of the United States. Having spent a great portion of his childhood in Beaufort, South Carolina, the author certainly drew from his own past in his creation of The Prince of Tides. Like Mr. Wingo, Conroy’s father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, was ill-tempered and ornery. Likewise, the author described his mother as socially ambitious, a characteristic that he gave to the novel’s Mrs. Wingo.
In fact, Conroy used other elements from his past in his work. Like his main character, Tom Wingo, Conroy taught high school English on an island just off the South Carolina coast. For his use of unorthodox teaching methods and his disrespect for school authorities, Conroy was fired from his post. More significantly, however, Conroy too had a poet sister who lived in New York. In a manner similar to that of Savannah Wingo’s, Conroy’s sister suffered a mental collapse.
Reception of the novel
Although Conroy used to be quite close with the sister referred to above, she refused to speak with him after the publication of the novel. In fact, many of the author’s relatives expressed shock at the work. Conroy noted, “I’m saddened, but when you write autobiography, this is one of the consequences. They’re allowed to be mad at you. They have the right” (Conroy in Ryan, p. 680).
Critically, Conroy’s novel met with mixed reviews upon publication. While a review in the Chicago Tribune proclaimed, “Pat Conroy has fashioned a brilliant novel that ultimately affirms life” (Bass in Ryan, p. 679), others were not so complimentary. One article, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, complained that “the characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much, and above all, talk too much” (Eder in Ryan, p. 679). Regardless of the critical debate, however, The Prince of Tides found wide acceptance among the reading public.
Auerbach Walker, Lenore E., ed. Handbook on Sexual Abuse of Children. New York: Springer, 1988.
Bohannan, Paul. All the Happy Families. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides. New York: Bantam, 1986.
Hawes, Joseph M., and Elizabeth I. Nybakken, eds. American Families: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook. New York: Greenwood, 1991.
Kovacik, Charles E., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: A Geography. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1987.
Medvedev, Zhores A. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Ryan, Bryan, ed. Major Twentieth Century Writers. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.