The Prince of Tides: A Love That Bonds

{(This essay dated June 10 2009) In this analysis of The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, A.S. will discuss the theme of family loyalty as portrayed by the character’s own ideas of family values.}

“My mother taught us that it was the highest form of loyalty to cover our wounds and smile at the blood we saw in our mirrors. She taught me to hate the words loyalty more than any two words in the language” (Conroy 160).

In The Prince of Tides, the main character, Tom Wingo, relives his childhood of pain and trauma, growing up with his two siblings on a small South Carolina island. His memories are stained with painful violence, harsh words, and repressed feelings and thoughts that plague the Wingo children in their every day life. As a result of this “family loyalty”, Savannah Wingo has tried to commit suicide twice and wishes to cut all ties with her family. “Until I figure out the past, I can’t bear to think about the rest of my life. It f* me up, Luke and Tom. I see things. I hear things. All the time” (45). Also because of this, Tom Wingo is incapable of loving, and Luke Wingo was willing to die for his land, because his misunderstanding of loyalty.

During their childhood, the Wingo children lived in constant fear of their father’s abuse. “Then. Slowly, my father removed his belt and began beating Luke’s ass and legs with a flashing, brutal movement of his great red-haired arms” (119). However, what was worse than the brutality of their father was the way they dealt with the emotions, instructed by their mother. “We’ve pretended too much in our family, Luke, and hidden far too much. I think we’re all going too pay a high price for our inability to face the truth” (51). Their mother’s rule of family loyalty was to ignore the bad things, and pretend they never happened. They were not to speak of the way their father abused them, as it would ruin their appearance as a strong family. Family loyalty meant pretending everything was fine in any situation. “We were born to a house of complication, drama, and pain” (111).

During a flashback of their childhood, the Wingo children were once again forced to ignore a horribly traumatic event that occurred because it would hurt their father, and bring shame and guilt to the family name. While there father was away, three prisoners had escaped from jail and come to their house. The men raped Savannah, Tom, and their mother. With the help of their pet lion, the family had brutally massacred the men, but the damage had been done. “You won’t call anybody. This didn’t happen. Do you understand? Do you all understand? This did not happen. Your father would never touch me again if he thought I had sexual intercourse with another man. No fine young man would ever marry Savannah once the word got out that she wasn’t a virgin. I’m thinking of our family’s position in this town. We can’t do it to Amos and Tolitha” (497). Suppression and silence were the definition of the Wingo family loyalty.

Conroy uses family loyalty and secrets as a reoccurring theme in The Prince of Tides. As children, the Wingos were always told the epic story of how their father escaped from Germany when his plane went down during WWII. However, to protect their father’s image, a crucial part of the story was always left out. “I told you that she screamed and ran to get her husband. That much was true, but my father did not rush out and hide in a cave beside a river. He caught the pretty woman and he strangled her to death in that barn. The German woman’s face was five inches from his own as he crushed the bones of her throat and she died in agony right before his eyes” (98). Their entire lives were riddled with lies and deception, all because of the overwhelming theme of family loyalty. “We are a family of well-kept secrets and they all nearly end up killing us” (99).

In many different situations, Conroy relays the message that Lila Wingo had a warped misconception of what it meant to be loyal. When her daughter is brought to the hospital in NYC, she doesn’t see the meaning in going to see her. “Oh, I can’t possible go, Tom. This is a real hard time for me. We’re giving a dinner part Saturday night and it’s been planned for months. And the expense. I’m sure she’s in good hands and there’s nothing we can really do” (21). In her mind it was critical that they must cover the rape and murder that occurred in their home, because her daughter would not be appealing to fine men if she was not a virgin. However, she could not take the time to see her daughter when she sliced her wrists open in an attempt to escape her troubled life.

Conroy also uses this incident to reveal how the Wingo children’s past, has helped them to realize the loyalty they have for each other. In response to his mother’s neglect, Tom says, “Being there is doing something, Mom. You’ve never realized that” (21). This incident makes the connection of how the past reflects on the present for these siblings. The lack of understanding family loyalty from their parents created a strong loyalty for each other in their adult lives. “I can love you no matter what you do. But I can’t bear to think of a world without you” (667). Conroy conveys the message that the distorted family loyalty experienced in their childhood brought forth a love that was unbreakable for each other.

Another example of the positive family loyalty the Wingo children entered their adult lives with is how Tom and Savannah stuck by Luke when he rebelled against the world. The town in which they grew up and the one Luke loved so much was sold to a company that wanted to turn the whole island into a factory for plutonium production. Luke took the island captive and went about destroying all chances of the company to build. When everyone declared him crazy, his siblings stuck by him and traveled out to the island to try and strike a deal. “Though God had burdened me with strange and wounded parents, he had granted me the presence of the most extraordinary brother and sister to balance the hand. I could not have made the journey without them. Nor would I have chosen to make it” (661).

The predominant theme in The Prince of Tides is family loyalty. Conroy uses the stories Tom relives from his past to show how his family had a twisted version of what loyalty truly meant. The Wingo’s believed in lies, deception, and repression as the method to staying loyal to their family. Through this blurred vision of faithfulness, the Wingo children learned how to truly love each other.

A.S. 2010


The Great Santini: A Portal into the Nomadic Military Family

{(Essay date June 10 2010) This literary criticism by A.S. will analyze the relationship of a military family through the character development of the Meecham family in The Great Santini by Pat Conroy.}

“Why do I get hit when some jerk colonel gets on Dad’s back? Dad screws up an ssignment in Cherry Point, and I get slapped when he flies back to Ravenel. He receives a reprimand in a memo from Washington and then he gets pissed off at me for breathing to hard when he gets home that night” (Conroy 127).

Bull Meecham has a problem. As stated in the previous quote, Colonel Meecham suffers from displacement issues, in which he takes out his issues in his work life on the defenseless members of his family who are the least to blame. In The Great Santini, Pat Conroy reveals the relationship a family suffers when their father, a US Marine, loves the Marines more than he loves his family. As a military family, members must learn to lead an unpredictable, unsteady life that can be well adapted to any circumstance. The narrator describes the life of one of the children, Ben, by stating, “No matter how hard he tried, he never developed any imperishable allegiances to the washed-out, cloudless Marine bases where he had lived for most of his seventeen years. It was difficult to engender fealty for any geographical point when he had dwelt in four apartments, six houses, two trailers, and one Quonset hut in his forced enlistment in the family of a Marine officer. He longed for a sense of place, of belonging, and of permanence. He wanted to live in one house, grow old in one neighborhood, and wanted friends whose faces did not change yearly” (41). A nomadic existence is one of the few flaws Conroy reveals that plague a Marine family.

Another issue the Meecham family suffers through is the anger and violence their father, Bull, contains. Conroy firsts associates violence with the Colonel in giving him the name Bull, a fierce fighting beast. Bull is an alcoholic with a temper. He is very abusive towards his wife and children. Ben relives a moment of this with his mother in the following quote. “When Dad hit you two years ago, Mom, I held you in my arms and you were crying. You met him at the door and started fighting with him because he’d been drinking gin, and you said gin made him wild because it did something to his system. He started hitting you in the face. I ran in and grabbed his legs. He started punching me in the head. Mary Anne came in, and started screaming. This is your blood, Mama” (130). Due to the tough military training the Colonel received and the life he lives outside of his family, he reacts violently to everything that doesn’t go his way. His violence and anger was so severe, that his own children often wished him dead. “I don’t know how to feel about Dad being dead. I used to pray for his plane to crash. I used to pray for it all the time. I’m scared that one of those prayers was up there floating around lost and he accidentally ran into it on the way back from Key West” (433). With military pride, comes military rage and violence, as Conroy reveals through his writings.

Pride, honor, and arrogance are major values brought into a Marine family. Conroy develops the values the Meecham’s have through the character development of Bull. As a Marine, Bull knows he is the greatest. He is also never shy to show it. He holds himself, and his Marines, above all else. Even in comparison to other military branches Bull holds Marines to a higher standard saying, “It is a sin, a mortal sin, for a Marine ever to let a goddam squid think we are related to them in any way” (4). Bull has pride and honor in being the Marines, and he brings these emotions to his family. Bull says to his own wife, “It is I, Santini. The Great Santini. Soldier of Fortune. Beast of Ravenel. Minister of Death. And the best damn pilot in the Marine Corps” (82). Bull expects his family to hold the Marines in as high a regard as he does, by forcing them to act like Marines, and making the Marine Hymn their family song. Conroy includes these small details to show how the military is infused into everyday life of a Marine officer’s family, and it engulfs everything around them.

Along with a strict military father, comes the woman who stands behind him. Meecham describes what it’s like to have an officer’s wife as a mother as a constant battle. He describes the character as strong, and being able to maintain a household for years at a time while her husband is away. However, this position is highly versatile, and in the presence of her husband the wife must be withdrawn but supportive. Lillian Meecham is characterized as the perfect military wife. She does everything her husband asks of her, and can handle her children when necessary. However, Conroy reveals the flaws subject to the wife and mother of a military family. Lillian denies that her husband ever hits her. She is afraid and ashamed to admit it, because she feels her husband worships her. However, she projects a false sense of courage. She tells her son, “If he ever does that to you again, Ben, I’ll leave him. So help me God, I’ll leave him” (125). Conroy diminishes this reassurance of ending the abuse when he reveals that Lillian has said this on multiple occasions, losing all credibility. Conroy depicts the problems in a military family to not only revolve around the authoritative father, but also the complicated mother figure.

In The Great Santini Pat Conroy develops and reveals the true identity of the All-American military family. Through character and plot develops he discloses the harsh life of instability, the abuse, the emotions, and the role play a family like the Meechams suffer daily. Through his writings, one would think there was no escape from this cruel lifestyle.

“Has the Great Santini ever let his family down?” he asked with fake incredulity.
“Yes,” the family shouted back, please by the spontaneous incredulity” (53).


A.S. 2010