The Lords of Discipline
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Preceded by||The Great Santini|
|Followed by||The Prince of Tides|
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.
Will McLean, an aspiring novelist, finds life as a "knob" or "plebe" (a first-year cadet in training) at the Carolina Military Institute in Charleston to be physically and emotionally brutal. Will is not interested in a military career, and had only agreed to attend the Institute as a promise to his father, who was an alumnus, and died of cancer several years before the story takes place.
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. Still, this is not an easy time to be a student in a military academy—especially in the South. On top of that, Will's Irish background and Roman Catholic faith have made him an outsider in Charleston society.
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 (based on Thomas Nugent "The Boo" Courvoisie, a former Commandant at The Citadel) who asks the senior cadet McLean to look out for the Institute's first black cadet, Tom Pearce, as a payback for the Bear taking an interest in Will during his difficult first year.
But McLean's journey to manhood is full of 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
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.
The Wearing of the Ring
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 it stands for. The men who wear it have worked hard to earn the right and hold the ring sacred.
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. 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.
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. 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.
- 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 never completely 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.
- 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.