The Lords of Discipline

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The Lords of Discipline
The Lords of Discipline.jpg
First edition
Author Pat Conroy
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 499
ISBN 0-395-29462-2
Preceded by The Great Santini
Followed by The Prince of Tides

The Lords of Discipline is a 1980 novel by Pat Conroy that was later adapted in a 1983 film of the same name.[1]


Although Conroy drew on his experiences as a cadet at The Citadel, he has said that the story is not based on his life or that of any other graduate of a military academy and is fictionalized.[citation needed]


Will McLean, an aspiring novelist, is in his fourth year at the Carolina Military Institute in Charleston. Through a flashback three years earlier with himself as a first year cadet (or "knob") he found the regimen at CMI to be physically and emotionally brutal. Will is not interested in a military career, and had only attended as a deathbed promise to his father, a CMI alumnus, who died of cancer several years ago.

Will does not exactly excel in military training, but he is a decent student, an athlete, and his professors and peers recognize him for his integrity and his sense of fairness. Will, however, has problems fitting in at large. Despite CMI's superior reputation in the South, Will still thinks of himself as an outsider due to his Roman Catholic faith and that both his parents are Irish-American. This is seen by his secret relationship with Annie Kate Gervais, a girl from a Charlestonian family who has become pregnant from an Institute cadet. Though Will helps Annie Kate, he realizes her family would not approve.

Will finds solace in his three roommates, who become his close friends: Tradd St. Croix, an "old Charlestonian" (from a very rich and respected family); and Dante "Pig" Pignetti and Mark Santoro, two brawny, Northern boys of Italian descent; he also respects the tough-talking, cigar-chomping Colonel "Bear" Berrineau, a character based on Lieutenant Colonel Thomas "The Boo" Courvoisie, an iconic former Assistant Commandant at The Citadel who was the subject of Conroys first novel. Berrineau asks the senior cadet McLean to look out for the Institute's first black cadet, Tom Pearce. "The Bear" chose McLean for this duty because an essay McLean had written in a previous year marked him as the only liberal in the student body.

But McLean's journey to manhood has many twists and turns, as he meets a girl whose life he can never be a part of and hears rumors of The Ten, a mysterious Institute secret society that ensures certain cadets, deemed unacceptable to "wear the ring" (that is, to be a graduate of the Institute, denoted by wearing of a class ring), are run out by any means necessary. The Vietnam War is raging, the military is unpopular and desegregation is knocking on the doors of Southern schools. It quickly becomes apparent that a group of cadets is trying to run Pearce out of the Institute, acting on the orders of trustees who are seeing to it that the Institute remain "as white as a flounder's belly". Will steps in to intervene, and he discovers a truth so horrendous that this knowledge can bring down the Institute. It also makes Will and his roommates targets. Not only is their graduation now in jeopardy, but their lives are also in danger.


The story is narrated in first person by Will, who attends the Institute in the time between 1963 and 1967. The novel takes place in four parts:


Will gives a brief explanation of why he 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. This first part describes the beginning of his senior year and the admission of new freshmen into the plebe system.

The Taming, Plebe Year[edit]

An extensive flashback into Will's own 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. While many of Will's schoolfriends wash out due to being unable to handle the rigors of the Institute, there is one recruit named Bobby Bentley who is a special case. Though physically fit, Bentley has a problem with bedwetting which renders him "unfit". However, conventional hazing methods fail to break Bentley, causing Will and his friends to bond closer with him and making Will's cadre the subject of ridicule with other upperclassmen. Near the end of the year, Will's freshman class is "recognized" as cadets, and the hazing stops. Shortly before this, Bobby Bentley is taken off campus by the regimental commander and other ranking cadets, and without explanation, withdraws from the Institute the following day.

The Wearing of the Ring[edit]

Focusing on the main body of Will's senior year and his conflict with the plebe system, 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 for which it stands. The men who wear it have worked hard to earn the right and hold the ring sacred.

The Ten[edit]

The fourth and final part relates to Will's battle against the mysterious Ten. Annie Kate's child dies in the womb and Will finds out what it is like to lose one's first love. He is reunited with Bobby Bentley, who reveals that he was spirited away to a plantation house owned by General Durrell, and was subject to intense physical exercise and intimidation to the point he elected to quit, realizing he did not want to be a part of the Institute if this secret brutality occurred. Through breaking into the study of Tradd's father, Will learns the rolls of The Ten and he and his roommates kidnap one member, now a law school student, into getting information out of him. 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.

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was adapted for the screenplay of a 1983 film of the same name, starring David Keith as Will McLean and Robert Prosky as Colonel "Bear" Berrineau.[1] The film version took place entirely in McLean's senior year, when he was asked to protect Pearce. Several plot points were changed for the film:

  • In the novel, Poteete hangs himself after one encounter with the Ten. In the film, he attempts to leap from one rooftop to another, but he misses and falls to his death.
  • In the novel, McLean was assigned the duty of protecting Pearce because of McLean's perceived liberalism. In the film, McLean was assigned the duty to repay The Bear for protecting him during his own plebe year.
  • After his "walk of shame", Pignetti commits suicide by walking into the path of a speeding train. In the film, he simply gets into a taxicab called for him and is never seen again. The film states that as part of deal with Durrell, Pignetti was to be reinstated at the Institute's next year to earn his incomplete credits.
  • Tradd's motivation for joining The Ten is not as well explained in the film, and the novel's entire "Honey Prince" subplot of Tradd's effeminate nature is never depicted, apart from a brief aside by Tradd's father Commerce in the opening. In the film, Tradd admits it was his father also being a member, ensuring him legacy status, and was enthralled with membership in The Ten being the Institute's highest honor, but expresses some remorse over The Ten's activities.
  • The entire plotline concerning McLean and Annie Kate Gervais, the mother of his roommate Tradd St Croix's illegitimate—and ultimately stillborn—child, is not in the film.
  • In the film, Pearce apologizes for turning his back on McLean, explaining that he did it because of survival, and if he did not make it, "the next nigger has my record around his neck like a rock". In the novel, McLean has no further contact with Pearce after that.