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A Reader's Guide to: Pat Conroy's "The Great Santini", Plot, Characters, and Vocabulary

Updated on July 30, 2014

The Plot

In this novel, "The Great Santini" we follow the life of a USMC Colonel and his family. The family dynamics involve the at times "twisted" relationship with the members of the Meechem family: the colonel, his wife, and his children. Much of the focus is on his 18 year old son's relationship with his father at that difficult age of reaching adulthood and independence. External relationships which are explored as well between his son and an African American farmer and a Jewish boy approximately his same age.

Along with the truly autobiographical work, "My Losing Season", published six years later in 2002, shows a very insightful look at the difficulties military famililies in trying to achieve a "normal" lifestyle.

The Words


accretion - something which has grown or collected slowly

amelorate - improve upon; to make better; make more bearable

anachronism - out of place or sequence especially not in time order; a chronological error

anthropomorphic - assigning human attributes or qualities to a non-human being or thing; resembling a human form

arrhythmic - lacking regularity; lacking in rhythm

aurignacian - relating to an ancient culture which was self-aware and sophisticated. Considered the "first modern man".


Bon Cousy - (1928- ) a retired American professional basketball player and coach.

bovine - of of pertaining to animals in the mammal subfamily Bovinae which includes cattle, buffalo, oxen.


concupiscent - desiring eagerly; lustful; sensual

Corsair - U.S. fighter plane used during World War II and the Korean conflict

"The Great Santini" would have flown a Corsair F4 such as this during his tours of duty in World War II and the Korean conflict.
"The Great Santini" would have flown a Corsair F4 such as this during his tours of duty in World War II and the Korean conflict.


desiccated - dehydrated; reduced to powder

dreck - (slang) - junk; trash; excement; dung; wothless matter

D.I. - drill instructor (as in the Marines), an NCO (non-commissioned officerin charge of new recruits

A USMC Drill Instructor had at work with a new recruit.
A USMC Drill Instructor had at work with a new recruit.

*** E ***

efficacy - having the ability to bring about desired results; ability to make happen

equanimity - emotionally calm under stress or duress

ethereal - very delicate; light or airy


festooned - flowers, cloth, ribbon, foliage draped in a curve between two points

fungoes - In baseball, a batted ball, especially a fly ball. A ball flung in the air by the batter and hit (in game practice).


George Dickel - brand name for a Tennessee whiskey originall produced by George and Agusta Dickel (1870).

George Dickel Tennessee whisky has been around for over 100 years.
George Dickel Tennessee whisky has been around for over 100 years.

goldbricking - a person doing less work than he should. The origins are from disguising a worthless brick by painting it a gold color.

gyrene - (slang) a U.S. Marine. The word comes from combining GI with (Ma)rine.


horse latitudes - either of two latitudinal belts 30 degrees North or 30 degrees Sout of the Euqator. These areas are areas of calm and gentle breezes. Sailing ships could be "caught" in these bands are remain immobile for days.


Impala - A Chevrolet brand car produced by General Motors

inchoate - not totally formed or operational; formless; incherent; incipient

ineluctable - unavoidable; cannot be escaped from

ingenuousness - the quality of being straightforward; guileless; not cunning

Ipana - a brand of toothpaste introduced in the U.S. in 1901. Its popularity reached its high point in the 1950s. Its mascot (symbol) was the Disney character "Buckey Beaver". No longer distributed in the United States, it is a popular band in Turkey.



K. I. A. - killed in action, a casualty of hostile military action


Lavabo - a device for the washing of hands especially used in religious ceremony.

An example of a lavabo. This one is from a painting by Jan Van Eyck circa 1300.
An example of a lavabo. This one is from a painting by Jan Van Eyck circa 1300.

leitmotif -a short recurring musical phrase

libidinously - pertaining to the libido; lewd; lustful;

Lon Chaney - (1883-1930) an American silent film actor and director noted for his makeup and characterization particularly in horror films.


Mameluke sword - the official sword carried by U.S. Marine Corps officers. It was adopted during their 18th century North African campaigns.

A U.S. Marine Corps officer displaying his Mameluke sword.
A U.S. Marine Corps officer displaying his Mameluke sword.

Manolete - Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez (1917-1947) considered the greatest bullfighter of all time. Killed in a bullfight.

Marine Hymn - The official song of the U.S.Marine Corps. The Marines' Hymn is the oldest among the songs associated with the U.S. Armed Forces.

First stanza:

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

mellifluous - having a rich, mellow flow; honey-like


November 10th - anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps in Philadelphia in 1775.


obsequious - overly eager to obey or to help

oligarchy - rule by an elite few


pallative - releaving pain without addressing the underlying problem, issue, or illness

peccadilos - a "small" sin; veneal act or fault

Presidio of San Francisco - a former Spanish and later American militrary fortress at the tip of the San Francisico, California penusula.

pugilist - one who fights; a boxer

purlieus - neighborhood or environs; designated area to range; an outlying area


Quantico - a major U.S. Marine Corps installation in northern Virginia. The marine base shares facilities there with the FBI Academy and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration).


Ravenel - a small coastal town in southern South Carolina. Population as of the year 2000 was just over 2000.

recondite -


sedulously - diligent; persistent; persevering

semper fidelis - (Latin) meaning "always faithful" or "always loyal"; the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps.

sonorous - producing a deep, rich sound

subaltern -

supernumerary - above the usual, prescribed, or proper number; in excess; additional; an extra

susurrus -


tattoo - a signal such as made by a drum, trumpet, or other instrument to inform soldiers of some required action; a strong puslation; a knocking or tapping

truculent - ready to fight; pugnacious



viscous - sticky; thick

vitriol - something with a caustic quality; corrosive

volubility - characterized as being talkative, glib, fluent


windsock - a large tube used to help pilots in landing by giving a sense of wind direction and relative speed.




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