The Barracks Thief is radically split in its character focus. On one hand, it is Philip’s novel, for it both begins and ends with his situation, and much of it is told from his point of view. On the other hand, Lewis is the barracks thief of the title, and it is his inner conflict about his image as a man that constitutes the central conflict of the novel. Because both Philip and Lewis seem more acted upon than acting, however, the reader does not learn much about either of them. Because the novel has something to do with Philip’s experience of male bonding and betrayal, his personality frames the novel. The story begins with Philip’s father breaking up the family and his brother running away, and it ends with Philip becoming a “good man”—a role he both accepts and chafes against.
Lewis is a more “interesting” character, although he seems almost incapable of complex thought. His motivations are central to the novel: He is the one who refuses to leave his post at the ammunition dump (an episode that establishes the theme of male bonding in the novel), and he is the barracks thief of the title (which destroys that bonding). On the one hand, Lewis is a simple stereotype, a dumb redneck who boasts and tries to prove himself as a man but who only ends up looking foolish and ineffectual. On the other hand, there is something centrally compelling about his problematical experiences with his comrades at the ammunition dump, with the teacher who rubs lotion on his swollen hand, and with the prostitute whom he says he loves. He cannot easily be dismissed as either simply stupid or simply mentally disturbed, for he seems to embody some of the problems surrounding the novel’s central theme—men trying to be men in a world governed by stereotyped masculine roles.