Freedom and Happiness in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Walker Percy’s 1961 classic, The Moviegoer, examines the issues of malaise and alienation within America’s prosperous society. Set in the post-Korean War 1950s, it centers around Binx Bolling, a young war veteran turned stockbroker, and his search for authenticity.[1] This search consists primarily of avoiding being caught up in inauthenticity, what Binx terms “everydayness.” This is a struggle, as he sees everyone with which he interacts caught up in the everyday and trying to pull him back into the everyday as well. This struggle causes him to separate himself as much as possible from other people. He visits his family only occasionally; his interactions with woman are purely physical and short-termed.

Binx is a perfect example of what Walker Percy terms the “lost self.” This individual is cut loose from society by its own freedom, facilitated by reliance on money rather than property, but “imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g. by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland.”[2] Modern man, in his pursuit of freedom, isolates himself from his surroundings and finds this lack of constraint much less free. If “it is not good for man to be alone,” then either freedom is not man’s source of happiness or modern man’s conception of freedom needs alteration.

Binx seeks for freedom and authenticity in isolation from others. His relationships in New Orleans consist of seducing his steady stream of secretaries and listening to his Aunt Emily remind him of his ignored obligations to family and community. Partly because of this isolation, Binx is constantly at the movie theater.

Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even in a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty streets in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

In an ironic twist, these film moments have become more authentic to Binx than his own experiences. Binx gains a sharper sense of the world from this meeting of reality and unreality; neighborhoods portrayed in films become more real when encountered again,[3] and movie stars have “a peculiar reality.” The only memorable moment in Binx’s life is the memory of being wounded in Korea. Binx fails to find such reality in the actions and words of normal people and so avoids them.

The Moviegoer has striking thematic similarity to another 1961 classic, the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This film centers around Holly Golightly, a female version of Binx Bolling. She has left her family in Texas claiming that she is a wild thing that cannot be kept. She lives alone with a cat named Cat and supports herself by socializing with wealthy men who reward her with money, gifts, and visits to expensive clubs and restaurants. Like Binx, she recognizes the inauthenticity of her life, but is unsure what to do. “We’re alike, me and cat. A couple of poor nameless slobs.” She refuses any personal relationships, fleeing her family in Tulip, Texas and fleeing unwelcome suitors by jumping out the bathroom window into the fire escape.

Also like Binx, she has an escape mechanism. She frequents the Tiffany and Co.’s jewelry store on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Well, when I get [afraid, without knowing what I’m afraid of] the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then – then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!

Holly lives a life of inauthenticity hoping for the moment something will come along to provide her with the security that Tiffany’s seems to offer. “Poor cat! Poor slob! Poor slob without a name! The way I see it I haven’t got the right to give him one. We don’t belong to each other. We just took up one day by the river. I don’t want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together. I’m not sure where that is but I know what it is like. It’s like Tiffany’s.” To find this security, Holly pursues rich men; she does this without love, merely seeing them as “the ninth richest man in America under fifty,” and “the next president of Brazil.”

When her friend and neighbor Paul, a “kept man” and stalled author, offers her love, she rebuffs him.

Paul: I love you.

Holly: So what.

Paul: So what? So plenty! I love you, you belong to me!

Holly: [sadly] No. People don’t belong to people.

Paul: Of course they do!

Holly: I’ll never let anybody put me in a cage.

Paul: I don’t want to put you in a cage, I want to love you!

In her refusal to rely on others and accept the loss of “freedom” follows, Holly has cut herself off from love. Paul accurately diagnoses her problem.

You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.” You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.

It takes the death of Holly’s beloved brother, her arrest in connection to a drug ring, and her subsequent abandonment by all her rich suitors, to show her what she truly needs. The movie ends with Holly, Paul, and Cat ostensibly beginning a life together.

Binx too is pulled out of his self-chosen isolation by the efforts of others. The first person to have such an impact on him is his crippled half-brother Lonnie.

He is my favorite, to tell the truth. Like me, he is a moviegoer. He will go see anything. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business….After I kiss him good-by, Lonnie calls me back. But he doesn’t really have anything to say.

“Wait.”

“What?”

He searches the swamp, smiling. “Do you think that Eucharist –”

“Yes?”

He forgets and is obliged to say straight out: “I am still offering my communion for you.”

“I know you are.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes.”

“How much?”

“Quite a bit.”

“I love you too.”[4]

For Lonnie, the everyday is authentic; Binx’ interactions with him sow seeds of doubt in Binx’ individualistic, isolated approach to the world. His reliance and insistence on love further challenges Binx’ attempts to distance himself from those around him.

The other person who pulls Binx away from himself is his fragile cousin Kate. Kate is depressed, having lost a fiancé a few years before the events in the book. She does not love her current fiancé, nor does he provide her the security for which she longs. She turns instead to Binx. After a wild and unwise bus trip to Chicago, Binx sees that she needs him and, after being confronted by his aunt, decides to marry her.

Through the satisfaction Lonnie receives in his love and service to others and through Kate’s neediness and reliance on him, Binx begins to realize that freedom and authenticity are not achieved in isolation and individualism. They are found in service to others and in the connection to place and time that comes from service and fellowship with others. Lonnie and Kate’s requests that Binx love them pull him outside of his self-enforced isolation and into the authentic world. Binx decides to go to medical school in order to have some impact on the world.

Most importantly, Binx finds the resolution of his searching. This solution is found outside of himself.

As for my search, I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other than the edifying. For another thing, it is not open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his, much too late to edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as opportunity presents itself – if indeed asskicking is properly distinguished from edification. Further: I am a member of my mother’s family after all and so naturally shy away from the subject of religion (a peculiar word this in the first place, religion; it is something to be suspicious of).[5]

This statement, as well as Binx’s refocusing his life on Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, strongly suggest that he has accepted his mother’s and Lonnie’s Roman Catholicism. Seeing a man step out of a church with ash on his forehead Binx ponders, “It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?” This acceptance of faith and God moves Binx beyond the solution of merely human love posited by Breakfast at Tiffany’s. By grounding his love and service to others in God, Binx is able to find true authenticity.

Through rejecting his self-imposed isolation and accepting love and service to others, Binx finds authenticity in the everyday. Through these relationships he finds himself as a Somebody, Somewhere rather than an Anybody, Anywhere; through relationships his place in time becomes a community. Through these relationships and the love he experiences in them, he comes to a knowledge of and relationship with God and finds his place and meaning in eternity as well.


[1] “What is the nature of the search? You ask. Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life….To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be in despair…The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), pg. 13.

[2] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1983), 12.

[3] “Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until if evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” The Moviegoer, 63.

[4] The Moviegoer, 165.

[5] The Moviegoer, 237.

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