The Lords of Discipline is a best-selling novel by Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides, Beach Music and The Great Santini. The novel takes place in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1960’s. The hero, Will McLean, is a cadet at the military academy called The Institute. The novel is modeled after Conroy’s own experience of plebe hazing and four years of fear as a cadet at The Citadel from which he graduated in 1967. The novel is Will’s narration of his four years at the academy and how those years shaped him into the man he has become.
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The Lords of Discipline deals with such intense topics as the demands of military life, deep-seated racial prejudice in the South, and the corruption and loss of individualism in an institutionalized setting. It is a glimpse at Southern tradition and snobbery; it is about falling in love for the first time. It is the story of Will McLean’s passage from boyhood to manhood.
The novel opens with a brief explanation of why Will is writing about The Institute. He is not relating a nostalgic tale of fond memories, but a mixed tale of hatred and love for his college years. He explains, “A Southern man is incomplete without a tenure under military rule. I am not an incomplete Southern man. I am simply damaged goods, like all the rest of them”. Will survived the Institute, but he never conformed to the military way of life.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first part is subtitled “The Cadre.” Will is returning to school for his senior year. He arrives a few weeks before the rest of his senior class because he has been chosen as a member of the cadre, the officers responsible for breaking in the freshmen plebes. He is also made responsible for the safety of a freshman named Pearce, the first black student to attend The Institute. In this section Will also meets Annie Kate, a pregnant and lonely Charleston girl who becomes his first girlfriend.
The second part is “The Taming, Plebe Year.” According to one critic, “The story that has been set in motion thus far stops and Will McLean relives his own nightmarish plebe year”. Will recalls the fear that was born in him when he was introduced to military life. He relives Hell Night, the night the plebes are tested physically and mentally to the point of breaking – and many do break. Will learns that the only way to survive is to bond closely with the other members of his class against the cadre. He meets the students who will be his roommates and his best friends throughout college.
The third part is “The Wearing of the Ring.” Will and the other seniors are given their Institute rings in an elaborate ceremony. Wearing the ring is a symbol of loyalty and complete devotion to The Institute and all it stands for. The men who wear it have worked hard to earn the right and hold the ring sacred.
The section ends with Pearce meeting secretly with Will and revealing a plot against Pearce to remove him from the campus because he is black. Will suspects a group called The Ten is behind it and sets out on a quest to find the source of the group.
The last part is called “The Ten.” Annie Kate’s child is born and Will finds out what it is like to lose one’s, first love. Will’s search for The Ten takes a very dangerous turn. He finds out information that could cause serious trouble for him and for his roommates.
There are plenty of sinister events and dangerous plots. A boy is soaked in gasoline and threatened with fire by a group of classmates; a man is tied to the railroad tracks as a train is headed his way. One man has both of his arms broken in a suspicious accident. Will’s roommate deliberately walks into a train and is chewed to pieces in full view of all the cadets.
Through it all Will finds himself becoming a man. He makes it through the institute and gains the respect of many, and in the final scene he approaches Colonel Berrineau (Bear), who is the high ranking at the institute and asks him to sign his diploma. Will claims that he wants the signature of a man he can respect on his diploma. Bear looks at him and says that there already is, and then he points to will s name.
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