Percy Begins His Literary Career with

With the publication of his novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy launched a literary career that would feature many novels set in Louisiana, portraying that state’s unique mix of religions, races, and cultures.

Summary of Event

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961) chronicles a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a World War II veteran on the verge of his thirtieth birthday who cannot find his place in society. Rootless yet longing for a sense of place and permanence, Binx searches outside himself for answers. Successful by default but uncommitted to his job as a stockbroker, Binx has convinced himself that he is on a profound metaphysical search for the meaning of both life in general and his own life in particular. He will not settle for anything less than the Truth. Moviegoer, The (Percy)
Literary movements;Southern fiction
[kw]Percy Begins His Literary Career with The Moviegoer (1961)
[kw]Literary Career with The Moviegoer, Percy Begins His (1961)
[kw]Moviegoer, Percy Begins His Literary Career with The (1961)
Moviegoer, The (Percy)
Literary movements;Southern fiction
[g]North America;1961: Percy Begins His Literary Career with The Moviegoer[06770]
[g]United States;1961: Percy Begins His Literary Career with The Moviegoer[06770]
[c]Literature;1961: Percy Begins His Literary Career with The Moviegoer[06770]
Percy, Walker

Good looking, born into a respectable white Southern family, and lucky with young women, Binx nevertheless drifts through life. He is alienated from his immediate family as well as from himself. Desiring authentic communication, he finds all human contact to be artificial, confusing, and manipulative. Binx finds that the most real, most authentic moments of his life occur when he enters into the plotlines of the movies he frequents. His entire life’s value system is inverted. He mistakes movies for real life, interprets his ambitionless drifting as a search for meaning, confuses occasional sexual encounters for love, and uses a shorthand type of speech for authentic communication. A spectator even in his own life, Binx eventually agrees to marry a cousin, a mentally unstable young woman whose life is made bearable only by the knowledge that suicide is always an option, should it become necessary.

Binx is far from introspective, yet he does recognize that he will not find the object of his search by following someone else’s pattern in life. Though he cannot definitely say what he wishes to do with his own life as his milestone birthday approaches, Binx knows that continuing to replicate the patterns of the past will no longer suffice. Momentous changes have occurred in the world, in New Orleans society, and in Binx himself as a consequence of World War II and the advent of the Cold War. Binx’s rootlessness is symptomatic of an entire world that has lost its moorings. Binx has the integrity to refuse to believe what others believe simply because they have been taught to believe it. Binx would rather live isolated and lonely in a crowd, trying to rekindle a sense of wonder and mystery that lies buried under the everydayness of life.

Much of The Moviegoer is autobiographical. Percy could not figure out what to do with his life and could not decide what he wanted to be when he grew up even when he was grown up. Trained as a doctor, he decided that the sickness of the human soul was more important to cure than any sickness of the body. Western society seemed to him to be sick in its soul, having become profoundly displaced from its traditional grounding in religious certainties and well-established manners of conduct. Percy thought that a modern person who did not want to succumb to despair had to become a type of pilgrim or wayfarer, always willing to be an outsider in relation to this sick society.

Walker Percy.

(Jerry Bauer)

In The Moviegoer, Percy introduced the themes that would be central throughout all his other novels. These included the soul-sickness of modern Western society; the modern individual’s lack of authentic identity, resulting from a rarity of authentic communication between such individuals; and the assertion that the individuals best equipped to function within modern society—those who seemed most healthy—were in fact the sickest people, because they were most aligned with a fundamentally pathological way of life. Percy believed that the job of the modern writer was to point out the artificialities of modern life, to insist that individuals should continue to strive for direct experience of other people in order to validate their existence and achieve authentic self-knowledge and identity.

All of Percy’s protagonists were antiheroes, individuals who turned away from worldly success in recognition of their own sickness. They became bystanders to life, as did Binx in The Moviegoer. Alternatively, they are doctors who are themselves in need of both physical and psychological healing. Such is the case in Love in the Ruins
Love in the Ruins (Percy) (1971) and The Thanatos Syndrome
Thanatos Syndrome, The (Percy) (1987). In the latter novel, the antihero, Dr. Tom Moore, has invented a machine that can regulate actions of the soul to match the actions of the brain. The doctor is himself a patient in a psychiatric hospital. In Percy’s world, only his antiheroes see society and themselves accurately. Only the antiheroes understand the pathological nature of modernity. Precisely because of their outsider status, however, society will not listen to them.

Giving up his medical practice, Percy turned to writing philosophical novels to try to diagnose the sickness of modern life, as well as to suggest not a cure but a way to manage the illness. The Moviegoer was written against the backdrop of the rise of the Cold War following World War II, an event in which Percy did not participate because of a student deferment. The book was also influenced by the growing tension in the Roman Catholic Church regarding how best to adapt to the modern world and the rising tide of secular humanism, which offered answers to the meaning and purpose of life that many people found compelling.

Although his novels are not overly religious, Percy was an adult convert to Catholicism who thought that mystery and sacrament, rather than theology and doctrine, could offer a cure for the soul-sickness of modern Western life, with its emphasis on acquisition and consumption. As a Southerner, moreover, Percy also wrote in the context of the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement. A descendant of white plantation owners, Percy acknowledged the injustices of segregation, yet he was also reluctant to turn his back on the entirety of his Southern heritage. All the tensions in Walker Percy’s own life are found in the tension and flaws of his antihero main characters. Forced to live in society but not of society, their job is to serve as prophets, not of despair but of the possibility of escape from despair.


The Moviegoer was the surprise winner of the National Book Award National Book Award for 1961. Percy’s book demonstrated that philosophical literature could find an audience in the post-World War II United States. Percy was deeply influenced by the writings of existentialist Existentialism;literature philosopher Søren Kierkegaard Kierkegaard, Søren and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski, as well as the French existentialist novels of Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul[Sartre, Jean Paul] , particularly Sartre’s novel La Nausée
Nausea (Sartre) (1938; Nausea, 1949). In this novel, those thought to be sick are actually the only ones able to recognize the anxiety and loss of connectedness in modern life. Sartre’s novels served as templates for Percy, but Percy developed the content of his novels from Kierkegaard’s writings. Juxtaposed within a mass movement, Percy’s antiheroes try to answer the question of what to do, not with human life in general, but with a specific named individual life. They also mark out a contrast between the objective, scientific, technological worldview, which is little help to an individual, and the subjective, artistic, literary worldview that helps an individual create a sense of self, particularly in isolation or alienation from a larger social group.

Through his literary writings and his struggle to bring to life antiheroes who themselves struggled to understand and make themselves understood, Percy became interested in the field of semiotics, the study of language and other sign systems. He saw language as the mediator between an individual and that individual’s experiences. Since it was a mediator, it prevented any direct (immediate) experience of people and objects, creating a barrier between things in themselves and things as they are perceived by a linguistic subject. The more such subjects attempted to experience the world directly, the deeper the sense of estrangement they would find instead. In all his writings, Percy sought a means to bridge the distance between an individual and that individual’s lived reality. Moviegoer, The (Percy)
Literary movements;Southern fiction

Further Reading

  • Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Provides biographical information on Percy, as well as some literary analysis of his novels and his major nonfiction writings. Also places him within the context of mid-twentieth century U.S. race relations and post-World War II changes in the Catholic Church. Connects Percy to other mid-twentieth century Catholic writers, including Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Merton.
  • Percy, Walker. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Published the year following Percy’s death, this compilation contains published versions of his nonfiction works. Included are essays on the use of language, written versions of speeches, and the texts of two interviews.
  • Tolson, Jay, ed. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Friends since boyhood, Civil War historian and writer Foote and Percy wrote to one another over the course of decades on all topics, both personal and professional.

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