The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The narrator is a girl of fourteen when the narrative begins, and she is in her late twenties when the novel ends. She is the cloistered younger child of an upper-middle-class family in Burma, where her father is a revolutionary hero. Though cloistered, and pampered in the material sense as a result of her family’s wealth, the narrator is uncared for emotionally. To her recently deceased maternal grandmother, she was a “mother killer,” blamed for her mother’s death in childbirth. Her aunts seem to dote on her, yet their doting seems to derive from their own sense of function rather than from the fact that the narrator is a motherless child in need of love. With her father mostly absent, the narrator’s only emotional support comes from her brother, who tells her what she never tires of hearing: “You are my sister; I’ll look after you.” Innocent even in the turmoil of the last years in Burma, the narrator is compelled to become self-reliant and resourceful. When her brother becomes ill, she becomes his nurse, parent, and anchor to reality.

Shan, the narrator’s half-brother, is ten years older than the narrator. He is the charismatic older brother of her youth who tells her stories, shows her secret places, keeps a coterie of unsavory friends, and seems to charm everyone except his father. Best of all, he is the narrator’s protector. Daring and dashing in Burma, Shan is out of his element in New York City. Here he does not have the means...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

The Coffin Tree Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, a young Burmese woman who immigrates to the United States. The daughter of a revolutionary, she is reared in a financially secure but emotionally deprived environment. Her mother died when she was born, and her father is rarely home. When she is twenty, the narrator and her half brother are sent from Burma to New York City because a government coup has made their safety uncertain. Friendless, they struggle to adapt to a new climate and culture but sink into a degraded state of poverty and isolation. When the brother is beset with mental illness, the narrator cares for him until his death. A year later, she attempts suicide. During her stay at a mental hospital, she struggles to cope with her past and find a reason to continue living.


Shan, the narrator’s half brother. The son of a tribal woman who goes mad, he is tended by village women until adolescence. He is physically abused by his father and grows into an idle dreamer who is obsessed with looking for treasure. He is kind to his half sister, who is ten years younger. Once in America, he is unable to hold a job and lives increasingly in a fantasy world of threatening enemies and delusions of glory and power.

Auntie Lily

Auntie Lily and

Auntie Rosie

Auntie Rosie, older cousins of the narrator’s mother who bring up the narrator in the family home. In their sixties, they...

(The entire section is 505 words.)