Eugene really comes into his own as a person in the last part of the book. His love of reading and learning, and his intellectual brilliance, become clear at college, as do his eccentricities. He's a "big man on campus" and excels at his studies and extracurricular activities, but he's awkward, a loner, and somewhat of an oddball. Still, he's admired by his classmates, when they're not making fun of him. What is really brought out in the last part of the book, as Eugene matures into a fully-formed adult, is how much his family background has influenced him. He's always been introspective, and has loved reading, but the craziness of his family has also affected him, and, I think, isolated him more than he might be otherwise. His family is quite unique. They're totally dysfunctional...hard drinking, screaming at one another one moment, then crying the next, then laughing soon afterwards. Their personalities are huge. They throw harsh words at one another like tire irons to the head. Blame is tossed liberally, then guilt and remorse is felt. Sometimes the brothers get into fist fights. All is lubricated with liquor and the heat of the hot Southern nights. I love this family! They are so totally opposite of mine...a family of two rational, scientist parents who raised two kids who became scientists. No, the Gant family is a crazy, sordidly dysfunctional brood, and of the five children alive at the end, Eugene is the only one destined for any kind of "success" in this world. He's the most normal, but he's an oddball.
The family's dysfunction is perhaps most apparent during the death of Ben, the brother Eugene is closest too. Ben is a bitter cynic, but he and Eugene have a closer bond than any of the other siblings. Ben, who has always had lung problems, comes down with the Spanish flu, which turns into pneumonia, and he dies in a very poignant scene. But his deathbed is quite Gant-ian. Blame is cast, feelings are crushed, yelling, crying, fighting, and laughing ensue. These people are crazy, and I love them.
Intriguing to me, the biologist, is that Wolfe talks a lot about issues that touch on genetics. When Eugene first tries alcohol, he finds that he loves it, and he gets really drunk. His family is concerned, because they realize this love of alcohol runs in the family, and they hope Eugene won't fall into it...he's their best hope. The father feels remorse that he might have passed on his intrinsic love for alcohol to his son. There's also a scene at Ben's funeral, where all the relatives come to pay their respects, and Eugene looks on them with horrific fascination:
"There they were, each with the familiar marking of the clan - broad nose, full lips, deep flat cheeks, deliberate pursed mouths, flat drawling voice, flat complacent laughter. There they were, with their enormous vitality, their tainted blood, their meaty health, their sanity, their insanity, their humor, their superstition, their meanness, their generosity, their fanatic idealism, their unyielding materialism. There they were, smelling of the earth and Parnassus - that strange clan which met only at weddings and funerals, but which was forever true to itself, indissoluble and forever apart, with its melancholia, its madness, its mirth: more enduring than life, more strong than death.
And as Eugene looked, he felt again the nightmare horror of destiny. He was one of them - there was no escape. Their lust, their weakness, their sensuality, their fanaticism, their strength, their rich taint, were rooted in the marrow of his bones."
I just love that. That may be the best description of genetics, and of the power and kinship of families, that I've ever read. There's an argument in genetics about how much of a person's personality, intelligence, and character is genetic (nature), and how much is environmental (nurture), but this paragraph, and this book makes me think that perhaps the two are not separable. We are who we are because of our genes, which we get from our family, and from our environment, which is determined by our families, who are what they are because of their genes. There is no escape.
This book gets really wistful and sentimental towards the end, which made me reflect and realize that it was actually wistful and sentimental the whole time, it's just that I wasn't quite tuned into that (but I should have been, because Wolfe uses the phrase "Oh, lost!" in about every chapter). This is a book about a young man (which we know is Wolfe, because the book is famously autobiographical...he took a lot of heat for the closeness of some of the characters in the novel to folks in the town he was from (Asheville, NC)) looking back on his childhood and college years, his town and family. At the end, Eugene decides to go on to Harvard for graduate school, though he's not sure really why or what he'll study. But he realizes he's reached an end and must leave his town and family behind. He's quite wistful about this, and even discusses it with Ben's ghost, who he sees in the town square, on the porch of his father's old gravestone-carving shop, the night before he is to leave (Ben's ghost is great...a cynical, chain-smoking ghost who insists he's not a ghost). When morning comes and the ghost disappears Eugene looks over the town:
"Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, should I say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say "The town is near", but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges"
It's interesting to compare this book to "Of Human Bondage" which I read earlier this year. Both novels could be classified as bildungsroman, and the two novels were written about 14 years apart (1915 for Maugham's, 1929 for Wolfe's), but they are light years different in writing style, in emotional style, in content. Maugham's book seems very British, and very 19th century, compared to Wolfe's very 20th century American book...how times change, and how quickly...O, Lost!