The Primordial Myth of
The Bad Mother and The Good Mother
in Persons and Places and
in The Last Puritan
On Santayana's view the human personality possesses a number of sharply
distinct talents for experiencing and expressing what it finds to be true. Its
capacity to make myths plumbs the deepest of these truths. Myth is a form
of poetry, whose function it is "to repair to the material of experience, seizing hold of
the reality of sensation and fancy beneath the surface of conventional ideas, and then
out of that living but indefinite material to build new structures, richer, finer, fitter to
the primary tendencies of our nature, truer to the ultimate possibilities of the soul." !
"Ultimate truths," says Santayana, "are more easily and adequately conveyed by poetry
than by analysis." 2
During the same decades when he was incubating the "realms" of his metaphysics,
Santayana was also developing two different realms, in which were elaborated the more
personal fruits of his experience: one was Persons and Places, subtitled "Fragments
of Autobiography"; the other was his novel, The Last Puritan, subtitled "A Memoir in
the Form of a Novel." Each of these can be read, in addition to many other ways, as
a dramatization of the primal myth of the good mother versus the bad mother. Partly
this was a subtle, bloodless, but devastating posthumous revenge against his own
mother, as I shall try to indicate. Partly, also, the bad and good mother figures
represent the two warring traditions that "mothered" him — Puritanism and the
Artistic creation is the consummate play, and in playfulness Santayana has created
full-rounded characters in his novel, some of whom leap off the page. But just as his
philosophical system, gestated over the same stretch of time, exhibits audacious,
ironically elaborated structures, so too the characters and plot of the novel deserve to
be read wisely and variously.
Daniel Cory3 quotes a letter in which Santayana, many years before the completion
of the novel, describes Oliver's mother as "the quintessence of all New England
virtues." O virtues! O quintessence! Who can look at this woman — lazy, selfish,
cold, lacking culture or intelligence, manipulative, grasping — and miss the heavy
irony? Examples of vicious descriptions of this woman's behavior toward all who
depend upon her fill the book. Let one early scene stand here for all.
1 George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, Cambridge, MIT Press,
1990. Page 161.
2 George Santayana, The Idler and His Works, New York, George Braziller, 1957. Page
3 The Letters of George Santayana, edited by Daniel Cory. New York, Scribner's, 1955.