Places: The Last Puritan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1935

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New England

*New Last Puritan, TheEngland. Northeastern region of the United States whose first English settlers built on Protestant Puritanism. A product of two worlds, Puritanism famished in the Old World and flourished in New England. Oliver Alden, Santayana’s protagonist in this novel, like Santayana himself, is torn between two societies–America, “the greatest of opportunities” and “the worst of influences,” and Europe, which is “always dying gently, cheerfully.” It is the contrast of productive diligence and delightful decadence. The soul of the author, like that of his lead character, remains divided between two worlds.


*Boston. Capital of Massachusetts and largest city in New England. Boston has been called the “Athens of America”; however, Santayana’s Boston in this novel is more like Sparta–a “dark and constricted place.” The Aldens’ home, located near the State House in Boston, is “forlorn” and “uninhabitable,” more a “pretense” than a residence. Proper folk, like the Aldens, frequent King’s Chapel, where they learn “morality mingled with reason.” As old-line Blue Book Anglo-Saxon, the Aldens avoid the immigrant Irish and Italians, who are “romanizing” their Puritan “Eden.”

Santayana’s Boston, like that of the Aldens, is “out of step” with the rest of America. The “puritanism” of the Aldens is at odds with the “idealism” of the new century, and their “pessimism” conflicts with the “optimism” of the Progressive Era. Their obsession with the “ancient” contrasts with the compulsion for the “recent” in a New America, with a “New Freedom,” “a new woman,” and “a New Idea.” Their noblesse oblige democracy clashes with the egalitarianism of President Woodrow Wilson’s New Democracy.

Great Falls

Great Falls. Fictional Connecticut town that Santayana depicts as a “prison” in which “puritan character” is formed. The psychiatrist Dr. Bumstead’s house, like the adjacent mental asylum, is a place of illusions–of class, character, and conduct. The house is refurbished only because of a lucrative marriage (to an Alden of Salem and Boston) and the pretentious house, with its decorative white columns, is restored to its original Revolutionary era style and is filled with Empire (pronounced “ompeer”) furniture. Bumstead’s house, like the nearby mental hospital, is a place from which to escape. Great Falls is an oppressive community, one sage observes, “no wonder so many people go mad in these old puritan families.”

At the town’s high school, with its “common boys” and “mediocre teachers,” the “proper Bostonian” Oliver Alden teaches the “lower classes.” It is a place for the elite to master mixing with “commoners.” Its classical curriculum, complete with competitive sports, provides a crucial rite of passage for the Puritan soul.

<i>Old Junk</i>

Old Junk and Black Swan. Sailing ships that provide respite for the Alden men from the “oppression” of Puritan New England. A “floating heritage,” the Swan is “a Noah’s Ark in the Deluge” of respectability, for it is a place of enlightenment and salvation. Aboard it, one can tell forbidden truths and reveal the “other self.” Away from land, one can swim naked, associate freely with the lower classes, and abandon all middle-class pretense.


*Salem. Massachusetts town, which was the home of some of the Alden ancestors, that is both legacy and license. It is also the site of a Benedictine monastery founded by a cousin who became a Roman Catholic in his rebellion against Puritanism.

*Harvard University

*Harvard University. One of New England’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, adjacent to Boston. Sometimes called the “Puritan Mecca,” Harvard is the apex of any Alden’s moral odyssey. Father Peter Alden might learn Arabic in the Empty Quarter or master psychology in Paris, but his real “imprimatur” is a medical degree from Harvard. Like Santayana–who both studied and taught at Harvard–Oliver Alden “serves his time” as an athlete, average scholar, and member of the right secret societies in this institution, which has more to do with socialization than education. To people like the Aldens books are ornaments, like mirrors, and Harvard should be a “paradise of plain living and high thinking.” Although Oliver lives in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s former room in Divinity Hall, the experience does not lighten his sense of obligation. The Romanticism of the famous Concord sage cannot free Alden’s bound Puritan conscience any more than did his exposure to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe through his German governess.

Sources for Further StudyKirby-Smith, H. T. A Philosophical Novelist: George Santayana and “The Last Puritan.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. Especially useful for assessing the influence on Santayana of Baruch Spinoza, a thinker who, along with Walter Pater, Plato, and Arthur Schopenhauer, was important in Santayana’s philosophy.Lachs, John. George Santayana. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Does not treat The Last Puritan but does provide a useful framework for interpreting Santayana’s life and philosophical works. Helpful chronology and bibliography.Levinson, Henry Samuel. Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Discusses philosophical issues at the core of The Last Puritan. Sees the novel as an exploration of the failure of romantic, Emersonian philosophy to teach action as the basis for enlightenment.McCormick, John. George Santayana: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Detailed, readable biography surveying the author’s life and writings. Contains several sections and many useful references to The Last Puritan, especially pages 323-339.Price, Kenneth M., and Robert C. Leitz III, eds. Critical Essays on George Santayana. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992. Includes several essays devoted specifically to The Last Puritan.Santayana, George. Persons and Places. 3 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944-1953. A colorful and philosophical interpretation of the author’s life and the aesthetic significance he discovered in living. Since The Last Puritan is semiautobiographical and these memoirs are semiliterary, they complement each other nicely.Singer, Irving. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Emphasizes Santayana’s grace in combining literature and philosophy. Excellent chapter on The Last Puritan.
Categories: Places