Places: The Web and the Rock

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1939

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic realism

Time of work: 1900-1928

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedLibya Hill

Libya Web and the Rock, TheHill. Small North Carolina town in which George is born and raised. It is a sharp, vivid place, where specific buildings are grounded. His uncle’s hardware store is not a vague business in the town proper, but a particular store with certain wares, plate glass windows, and a location relative to other downtown landmarks. George’s parents were divorced shortly after he was born, and after his mother’s death, when George was eight, he moved in with his Aunt Maw in a small house in the backyard of his uncle’s fancier home. George escapes this, however, by going to the front yard of his uncle’s house. From there, he sees the townspeople, and he imagines other lives. In particular, he imagines the life of his father, who also lives in Libya Hill but whom he is not allowed to see. George imagines his father actively participating in the life of the town: going to the barbershop, greeting the other residents, and so forth, or he imagines Pennsylvania, where his father was born.

Libya Hill provides the first web-rock interface for George. His mother’s family is rooted there, and Aunt Maw’s stories bring those roots alive. His father is a bricklayer who built many of the town buildings, a physical demonstration of how Libya Hill is a stable touchstone. It is a small town in which most people are aware of, if not involved in, one another’s business. For example, when George’s parents divorce, the townspeople take sides, condemning either his father or his mother. Every person’s place, physically and mentally, is known not only by that person, but by everyone else, who participate in keeping the person in his or her proper place.

George leaves Libya Hill at age sixteen, when he receives a small inheritance from his father, in order to attend college. During his schooling, George tries to move past the constraints of Libya Hill. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevski fires his imagination, but the old Libya Hill crowd at school mocks this kind of intellectual exploration–it might move George too much out of his place in their network. After graduating, George moves to New York City for the first time.

*New York City

*New York City. George moves to New York City twice, and the novel ends with him planning a third period of residence there. At first he rooms with some old college buddies. His impressions of New York are nonspecific–towering buildings, rushing crowds, anonymous women–underscoring how difficult it is to get a hold on this particular rock. He does not work but lives on the dwindling inheritance from his father. While his university friendships are less stifling than his family ties in Libya Hill, he grows past these as well and replaces them with nothing. Adrift, George sets out for Europe.

On George’s return voyage, he meets Esther Jack, beginning his most important relationship of the next few years. She is his mistress, his mentor, his muse. She also represents one who has made New York City her own, both as web and rock. Her hospitable homes, her job as a theatrical costume designer, her friends and family among artists and businessmen, connect her to what still seems dizzying and intimidating to George. Esther sets George up in a small studio apartment and visits him every day, cooking for him, encouraging him, and working on her own designs. George teaches composition and works on his own novel, and when he goes out, he moves within Esther’s circles. He finishes his novel and, with Esther’s support, sends it out to publishers. However, his core frustrations in New York have not lessened. He is still anonymous there; Esther mediates his attempts at making New York his own.

George finds being bound into Esther’s world stultifying in turn. He breaks off their relationship and again flees to Europe. Once abroad, though, he haunts the mail service for her letters, demonstrating how he has finally begun to realize that he is connected with other people. During the Oktoberfest in Munich he is involved in a brawl. While recovering in the hospital, he does nothing but muse over the past decade or so of his life. Finally he acknowledges his newly found sense of self-worth, the lack of which had always led him to shelter behind others. Encouraged, George decides to return to New York, ready to establish his own web to secure him to its particular rock.

BibliographyEvans, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Excellent introduction to The Web and the Rock. Analytically summarizes its episodes and discusses Wolfe’s narrative devices.Idol, John Lane, Jr. A Thomas Wolfe Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Explains how Wolfe’s editor became virtually his coauthor. Identifies as major themes an artist’s problems in a hostile environment; loneliness; and personal, social, and religious conflicts. Presents a book-by-book plot summary, an explication of symbols, and analyses of characters, all of whom are identified in a glossary.Kennedy, Richard S. The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962. Definitively combines biographical data and critical perceptions to fit The Web and the Rock into the evolution of Wolfe’s career.Ryssel, Fritz Heinrich. Thomas Wolfe. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. Shows how Wolfe confronted and partially solved technical and thematic problems resulting from turning to less autobiographical writing in The Web and the Rock.
Categories: Places