by Martha Ashe
In his widely celebrated novel, The Moviegoer (1961), Walker Percy presents the intriguingly complex protagonist Binx Bolling in the week leading up to his thirtieth birthday on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans. Throughout this week of Mardi Gras, Binx is consumed by “the search,” which he describes as “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life” (13). So what is the search? It is Binx’s desperate pursuit for an escape out of the “everydayness” of his life in the attempt to discover his inner self. He is a loner and isolates himself from others, both emotionally, by rejecting friends, family, and lovers, and geographically, by moving to the suburbs of New Orleans. Such isolation only thickens the fog of malaise that settles over his mundane, uninspired existence that he likes to call his “Little Way.” And rather than embracing his search to find a way out of this haze, Binx consumes himself in the stasis of endless evasions and distractions that avoid confronting the entrenched depression that fuels it. While he is a perceptive individual in analyzing those around him, he is only partially cognizant of the major implications of his own behavior. Nevertheless, by the novel’s end he expresses a sense of confidence and direction that suggests he has come to a deeper understanding of self and has advanced in his search. Paralleling his psychological journey is a physical journey that takes him from living in the “nonplace” of Gentilly suburbia to the definitive place of New Orleans. Through this catalyst of place, Percy exemplifies and facilitates Binx’s personal growth in ultimately confronting, rather than evading, his conception of the search.
Binx begins his narrative by telling the reader that for the past four years, he has “been living uneventfully in Gentilly, a middle class suburb of New Orleans” (6). Though he comes from a wealthy, upper class family and would be expected to live in one of the socially prominent sections of the city, he chooses to live in Gentilly instead because “one would never guess it was part of New Orleans” (6). He explains that his aversion toward the city is because he “can’t stand the old world atmosphere of the French Quarter or the genteel charm of the Garden District” (6). When he has tried in the past to live in the Garden District where his aunt and uncle live, he has found himself entering first into fits of rage and then of depression (6).
Analyzing these comments in light of Percy’s discussion of place in his essay, “Why I Live Where I Live,” it is clear that Percy is basing Binx’s place of residence on his own in Covington, Louisiana. He describes Covington as the “perfect place for a writer” (7) because it “is in the Deep South, which is supposed to have a strong sense of pace,” but “occupies a kind of interstice in the South” (3). He calls it “a nonplace in a certain relation to a place,” that place being New Orleans, which he says “is very much of a place, drenched in its identity, its history, and its rather self-conscious exotica” (6). What he likes about Covington are “its nearness to New Orleans . . . and its own attractive lack of identity, lack of placeness, even lack of history” (6). In Covington, he says, “it is possible to live in both cultures without being suffocated by the one or seduced by the other,” the one being the South, and the other being New Orleans (9). He compares the seduction of New Orleans to a disease, “The occupational hazard of the writer in New Orleans is a variety of the French flu, which might also be called the Vieux Carré syndrome” (9). Binx may not technically be a writer, but like writers, he is a storyteller attempting to shape the story that is, and will emerge to become, his life. As he struggles to define himself, he must escape the “haunted” city of New Orleans, “escape the place of [his] origin and the ghosts of [his] ancestors but not too far” (Percy 3).
Though Binx moves to Gentilly to escape the “placeness” of New Orleans, he nevertheless falls into a predictable daily routine that is entirely defined by its “everydayness.” Much to his family’s disappointment, he works as a stockbroker. His aunt continually urges him to “make a contribution” (53) to the world and pursue what she believes is his “natural scientific curiosity” (51) by doing research or going to medical school. But Binx denies her expectations and dismisses any aspirations he may have once had, “But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own” (9). He comically conveys his complacent, consumerist attitude through his unconsciously satirical comments on his petty life in Gentilly: “I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me. My wallet is full of identity cards, library cards, credit cards. . . . What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first-class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink. I pay attention to all spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer, and safe driving—though, as I say, I usually prefer to ride the bus” (6-7).
After reading this, it is almost shocking when only a few pages later Binx says that his “peaceful existence in Gentilly has been complicated” by “the possibility of a search” (10). This is not the first time that “the search” has occurred to him. It first occurred years before when he was lying injured under a bush after being shot in the shoulder during the Korean War and watching a dung beetle crawling around: “As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it” (11). When Binx is injured, he does not consider his condition, but rather contemplates a bug, the nature of life, and it is only during this near-death experience that he is able to transcend the self, to look beyond his condition and contemplate life, its potential, and all that he fails to see in his typical daily routine.
Now, Binx remembers his search again as he is getting dressed in the morning and putting his usual belongings—his wallet, notebook, pencil, keys, handkerchief, and pocket slide rule—into his pockets, and it is as though he sees them sitting on the bureau for the first time in thirty years: “What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it” (11). Once he does see it, however, he reawakens to his search, but only half-heartedly. He explains that the search “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” and he then adds: “To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair” (13). Binx may be onto something—he may be able to peek his head out from under where he has sunk and see the potential for something more out of life—but that is all; the rest of his body remains submerged.
The consistent motif of movies throughout the novel highlights how Binx continually flirts with the idea of his search. Binx states: “The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead” (13). And that is just what Binx does—he screws it up repeatedly. He has moments where he starts to come to himself, but then settles down. As Linda Hobson explains, the plot of the novel “is a compendium of evasions Binx uses to avoid the issue of his own despair, the knowledge that the Little Way is no way at all” (31). Another literary critic, Robert Coles, agrees, “The tension in the novel is the tension in Binx’s life, as he moves along on a search which at the same time he wants to undercut, or worse, size up all too exactly—and thereby thwart” (161). As for his evasions, Coles explains: “Binx certainly has fantasies. He is struggling throughout the novel to assume responsibility for them—turn them to some account in life, rather than run from them or flirt with them intermittently. He shuns personal possessions. He distrusts everyone, especially himself. He uses the streets of New Orleans, the homes he visits, his office, and of course the movie houses as endless sources of distraction” (157). And Coles further argues, “The nearer he comes to the most important step a person can make—decide to exercise freedom, make choices, and stand by them with commitment and intelligence, the more evasive he becomes” (161). Thus, Binx fails time and again to fully confront his search.
In Gentilly, Binx is as consumed by his malaise as the people he observes in the streets of New Orleans, the people who are not “onto something.” He defines the malaise as “the pain of loss”: “The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost” (120). He speaks of ways of “winning out over the malaise, if one has the sense to take advantage of it,” but he does not give the impression that he actually tries to take such advantage (120). Only pages later, when Binx is picking up Sharon from her apartment for their trip to the Gulf and sees her roommate Joyce standing in the window, he states, “If only I could be with both of them, with a house full of them, an old Esplanade rooming house full of strapping American girls with their silly turned heads and their fine big bottoms” (123). Binx immediately reverts to one of his most typical evasions—aiming, unsuccessfully, to fill the void in his life with meaningless relationships and lust.
What is particularly curious about Binx is his selective perceptiveness. Coles states that “his evasiveness if fueled by his perceptiveness” (161). Throughout Binx’s narrative, he constantly typifies the individuals he observes—acquaintances and strangers alike—into basic character stereotypes. He critiques the monotony and predictability of their daily lives, as though he can see through their superficiality, and yet queerly enough, usually fails to recognize his own. That said, there are fleeting moments when Binx seems to grasp his evasive behavior. A perfect example is toward the beginning of the novel when after running into Eddie Lovell on the street and listening to him ramble on about his life, Binx admits: “It comes over me: this is how one lives! My exile in Gentilly has been the worst kind of self-deception!” (18). It’s as if he realizes, but only for a brief instance, that his escape to Gentilly is a futile attempt at escaping his everydayness. He lives there “solitary and in wonder, wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder,” but never fully grasping (42).
Another such moment of self-recognition, but with a more conciliatory tone, is when he is driving homeward with Sharon from the Gulf and thinks, “It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh” (135-136). In his passing respite of happiness, Binx forgets his search and acknowledges that he is settling in life, but he fails to see how this settling is counterintuitive to the fundamental idea of his search. He implies that there is a difference between a “big search” and a little search, without apprehending that settling makes any search impossible.
The most striking, climactic moment of self-realization comes shortly after when he is at his family’s lake house and awakes in the middle of the night “in the grip of everydayness” (145). He seems to understand his counterproductive search and complains in his frustration and rage: “Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible” (145). He throws himself off his cot, and lying on the wooden floor, continues defiantly: “Nevertheless I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness. (The everydayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.)” (145). He implies the everydayness exists in Gentilly, but without making the explicit connection. He then expresses that neither of his parents’ families understands his search and that he will not side with either of their perspectives on life, concluding, “The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip with everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search” (146). This moment vividly expresses Binx’s entrenched desperation. But what is most significant is that though Binx realizes he is caught in everydayness, he does so passively; he does not take responsibility for it. He seems to blame the phenomenon of everydayness itself rather than admitting to his active role in it.
A major turning point for Binx toward taking a true step forward in his search is when he travels to Chicago with Kate. There, he can reflect on New Orleans from a healthy distance. Initially, he is unhappy about being asked to travel for his work, complaining: “Oh sons of all bitches and great beast of Chicago lying in wait. There goes my life in Gentilly, my Little Way, my secret existence among the happy shades in Elysian Fields” (99). Once there, he says his misgivings were right and grumbles over the “genie-soul of Chicago perched on [his] shoulder” (203). This “genie-soul” is the very “placeness” discussed above, which he says “you must meet and master first thing or be met and mastered” (202). And though both New Orleans and Chicago have their own “genie-souls,” Binx realizes that he prefers that of his home city: “The Lake in New Orleans is a back-water glimmering away in a pleasant lowland. Not here. Here the Lake is the North itself: a perilous place from which the spirit winds come pouring forth all roused up and crying out alarm” (203). Binx seems to come to an understanding that though the “genie-soul” exists in both places, he feels a certain affinity toward New Orleans. He sees the dreaded spirit of his city that makes it such a distinctive place in a positive light, and suddenly his original home becomes more inviting and appealing. At the same time, there is the latent realization that the threat of everydayness pervades all places, and so he discovers new cause to embrace his search in the New Orleans that he can now appreciate. And most significantly, in Chicago, away from New Orleans, Binx states: “There I see [Kate] plain; see plain for the first time since I lay wounded in a ditch and watched an Oriental finch scratching around in the leaves . . . I never noticed how shrewd and parsimonious she is—a true Creole” (206). In this momentous transition, Binx finally takes ownership of his place—New Orleans, and finally appreciates his family and heritage.
In this way, Binx returns to New Orleans on Mardi Gras, his thirtieth birthday, where he receives a severe, culminating lecture from his aunt critiquing his overt disregard for his family’s high stature and refusal to fulfill his obligations as a privileged member of the upper class (219-227). Binx leaves depressed, unsure what to do with his life, but then finds hope in confirming his marriage to Kate just as the story of his last week before entering into adulthood comes to a close. The novel then jumps a year into the future in the Epilogue, depicting a very different and markedly improved Binx Bolling. He is married, attending medical school, and living in what can be assumed to be the Garden District. And as for his search, he concludes, “I have not the inclination to say much on the subject” (237). It would appear that on the surface, Binx has ostensibly fallen into a life of everydayness and given up on his search. But the tone of his voice has shifted. He sounds confident. He may be living the life that was expected of him, but he is living it on his own terms and because he consciously chose it for himself after much deep contemplation. The care and guidance he shows for his siblings and for Kate suggests that he has matured and grown to be less self-absorbed. Hobson writes that he “comes full circle: from the hint of a search, through avoiding its radical implications, to leaping to embrace the search in all its difficult manifestations” (44). The search is by no means over; Binx will never escape his intrinsic nature. But he has confronted his search, accepted it, made a decision, and moved forward with Kate as a partner. As Coles clearly explains: “Their vulnerability will be one of the hazards they have knowingly assumed on the different and still quite hazardous road they are traveling, its destination, one suspects, not clear to either of them. They only know for sure where they were traveling, and want no longer to be found there” (172). Binx has thus grown substantially, embracing his search rather than evading it, moving forward with his partner into the unknown, but forward nonetheless.
1. Picture of the 1961 first edition dust jacket for The Moviegoer, National Book Award First Edition Collecting Guide, http://www.nbaward.com/book-details.php/The-Moviegoer
2. Garden District Gate and Balconies, 2008, By pwbaker (originally posted to Flickr as 330-74) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGarden_Distirict_Gate_and_Balconies.jpg
3. Lower Garden District, New Orleans, 19th century house with iron fence, 2007, Photo by Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Orleans_2521_Prytania_Street.jpg
4. Gentilly St. Roch House, 2007, By Karen Apricot (Flickr: St.Roch) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGentilly_St.Roch_House.jpg
5. Gentilly Feb 2013 Nice House, By Infrogmation of New Orleans (Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGentilly_Feb_2013_Nice_House.JPG
6. Joy Theater (New Orleans) Grand Opening 1947, The Times-Picayune Archives, Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joy_Theater_(New_Orleans)_Grand_Opening_1947.jpg
7. Postcard View of Canal Street Looking East [showing marquees for Saenger and Loew’s theaters], c. 1940’s, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACanalStLookEastSaengerLoews.jpg
8. Postcard Mardi Gras Crowds on Canal Street [showing Tudor Theater], c. late 1910’s early 1920’s, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MardiGrasCanalStreetTudorTheater.jpg
Coles, Robert. Walker Percy: An American Search. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. Print.
Hobson, Linda Whitney. Understanding Walker Percy. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1988. Print.
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer.  New York: Vintage International, 1998. Print.
Percy, Walker. “Why I Live Where I Live.” Ed. Patrick H. Samway. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991. 3-9. Print.