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Last Puritan, The

The Last Puritan

a novel by George Santayana, published in 1935. Santayana's only novel, The Last Puritan is a study of the conflict between puritanism and hedonism intended as a fictional epitaph for New England puritanism which both attracted and repelled Santayana, and whose historical roots and culture he had philosophically analysed. Partly autobiographical, it tells the story of Oliver Alden, the heir of a wealthy New England family, whose father, Peter, substituted ceaseless travel for the life of genuine human engagement. Peter marries Harriet because she represents a comfortable solution to a social problem rather than because he loves her; their child Oliver is nurtured without deep love, and fussed over by his effusive German governess, Irma Schlote, whose romantic idealism has no place in the late Calvinist atmosphere of the Aldens' family home. Oliver, a withdrawn and dutiful child, is introduced to the pleasures and dangers of emotional sympathy by Jim Darnley, the captain of his father's ocean-going yacht. Familiarly known as ‘Lord Jim’ for his murky past in the British Navy, Darnley is a study in self-serving hedonism, whose moral laxity further serves to attenuate Oliver's emotional life, though Oliver manages to persuade himself that he is in love with Jim's sister, Rose. As Jim fades from the centre of the novel, he is replaced by the real oppositional force to Oliver's rectitude in the person of his cousin Mario Van de Weyer, born and bred in Europe, educated at Eton, and representative of an unrepentant hedonism, which seeks to give pleasure rather than to receive. Recklessly un-selfregarding, Mario is a social gadfly at Harvard, where he and Oliver are fellow students, and elsewhere in the conventional life of the American ruling classes. The novel ends with Oliver and Mario serving in the First World War; the dilettante Mario flourishes heroically in service, whereas Oliver, born and bred to duty and self-sacrifice, is a sad failure as an officer. He is killed not in combat but in a motor accident, a day after the Armistice is declared. In a final irony, Rose Darnley, the girl he intended to marry, has always loved Mario, whose warmth of spirit had captured her love years before. The Last Puritan is very much a philosopher's novel, where the principle of ‘either/or’ allows very little shading of its dominant colours of elective sympathy.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Knole Kent to Mary Lavin Biography