Many of the tropes, commonplaces, symbols, and values used and reflected by American literary works written by white authors, as Toni Morrison writes, are “in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence.” The black/white racial binary and racial différance that mark this presence inform the use of racialized characters as signifiers in the novels of Walker Percy. In the Dr. Tom More novels Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy adopts racial symbolism as a means toward his critique of the American notion of “the pursuit of happiness.” In Love in the Ruins, Percy pursues the notion of a Cartesian mind/body dichotomy in ways that parallel W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of double-consciousness in African Americans. In The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy adopts a symbolism of slavery and freedom that reflects the experiences conveyed in slave narratives like those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs as well as Du Bois’s thought on the “Sorrow Songs.” In both instances, Percy draws upon the signifying presence of people of African descent in America to offer a critique of historical and present American materialism and hypocrisy. Through an examination of the use of racial symbolism in these novels via the lens of African American commentary on the experiences he uses as metaphor and symbol, this paper reveals the ingenious undermining of racial hierarchy through the application of its symbols in Percy’s works.

Bio Note

David Withun is a Ph.D. Candidate in Humanities at Faulkner University in Montgomery, AL, and an English Instructor at Savannah Technical College. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the influences of classical literature, mythology, and philosophy in the work and thought of W. E. B. Du Bois.

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