Prince of Tides: Role Reversal?

Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides is the story of a family in crisis and how the determination to keep the source of that crisis a secret almost destroys the individual members of said unit. offers this as plot synopsis:

…it is the story of a destructive family relationship wherein a violent father abuses his wife and children. Henry Wingo is a shrimper who fishes the seas off the South Carolina coast and regularly squanders what little money he amasses in farcical business schemes; his beautiful wife, Lila, is both his victim and a manipulative and guilt-inflicting mother. The story is narrated by one of the children, Tom Wingo, a former high school teacher and coach, now out of work after a nervous breakdown. Tom alternately recalls his growing-up years on isolated Melrose Island, then switches to the present in Manhattan, where his twin sister and renowned poet, Savannah, is recovering from a suicide attempt. One secret at the heart of this tale is the fate of their older brother Luke; we know he is dead, but the circumstances are slowly revealed. Also kept veiled is “what happened on the island that day”a grisly scene of horror, rape and carnage that eventually explains much of the sorrow, pain and emotional alienation endured by the Wingo siblings.

What is interesting to note, within this novel, is the manner in which the rape, who has agency in remembering the rape, and the roles that (specifically) Tom and Savannah take in that remembrance.

When we meet Savannah Wingo, she is hospitalized, having attempted suicide rather than live with the secret of not only her rape, but that of her mother (Lila) and twin brother Tom by two escaped convicts. Tom, on the other hand, is suffering from a nervous breakdown precipitated by his own attempts at secrecy and his wife’s infidelity. Their older brother, Luke, is “saved” from their fate, but as a result must bear the burden of saving his family, and does so by both shooting the rapists and unleashing a pet tiger on them. Lila, swears her children to secrecy and everything seems to progress swimmingly until Savannah again attempts suicide but nearly succeeds in killing herself, thus provoking her psychiatrist to ask Tom to help her unravel the mystery that is Savannah.

What is interesting to note as the story unfolds, is the roles that Tom and Savannah adopt. Savannah, always tenderhearted by nature, is the first to “betray” the secret that binds her family: she writes a thinly veiled children’s book about their rape. Thus, in a sense, she prompts the revelation of the Big Secret. Tom, on the other hand, assumes what is typically a “female” role. Typically, in regards to sibling dynamics, the sister takes the role of pacifier. She is the one that often mediates between her wild and crazy brothers, her parents, and between brothers and parents. Tom becomes the “sister,” he attempts to patch up the relationship between his harpy of a mother and his wounded sister and he also becomes the teller of the story, perhaps assuming the mantle that the fragile Savannah can no longer bear.

I’m not sure I’m putting this very well, and I’m clearly still trying to wrap my brain around this. To say that Tom assumes the sister role is not to say that Tom is not a man, in fact, Conroy makes it very clear that in no way shape or form is Tom anything but man. Yet, he’s sensitive and soft, typically qualities associated with women and usually, in such areas as literature and T.V., those qualities/stereotypes mean that a man is (at the very least) bisexual if not right homosexual. Part of me wishes that Savannah was the one saving Tom, but another part of me is really intrigued and touched by the fact that Tom assumes the roles that his sister would in order to save her. I feel as though this is one of the few instances in a novel (that I’ve read at least) where it is OK for a man to act in a “girly” manner and is portrayed in a way that doesn’t completely obscure the female characters qualities and/or make them negative attributes of a character. I’m not exactly sure if that falls under the category of “feminist” but I think that its important to explore nonetheless.


  1. Patricia Mathews says

    Tom, like Conroy himself, is shown as an idealist. That is, a feeling type. We’ve seen other examples in literature, especially the narrator of “Sophie’s Choice,” since the authors often put themselves in their novels and many authors are of the same breed.

    And, yes, you’re right; it is good to see.

    I saw the movie. It was good, except that Barbra Streisand as the shrink dressed in what seemed to me to be highly a unprofessional version of Hollywood businesswear, not to mention getting far too involved with Tom!

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    It was good, except that Barbra Streisand as the shrink dressed in what seemed to me to be highly a unprofessional version of Hollywood businesswear, not to mention getting far too involved with Tom!

    *headdesk* Why does that not surprise me? 😀

  3. Gategrrl says

    Sometime after this book came out, my stepmother, who is from the region this book is based in, sent it to me for Xmas. I was in my early teens; and she didn’t tell me what happened as the focal point in the story.

    I hated it.

    No, I despised it.

    I still can’t go near any of Conroy’s books. It was a while back, but what I remember, well, the book all of sudden hit a different structural stride. It felt like it came out of left field. At that age, I probably missed tons of clues of that sort of violence happening to the main characters. It was vicious and (to me) it felt gratuitous. It almost read like a comic book. And overall, it felt hopeless, even though at the end, Savannah and her brother sort-of work through their trauma.

    The roles of the victims? To me, they were all victims in the book. The only one that lived through it all without nary a problem was the near-evil, beating father. I thought it was loathesome.

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