The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Although Lee Mellon is the “hero” of the novel, he is hardly an admirable character. He can be very cruel, calling the poor, demented “Roy Earle” a crazy man and keeping him in isolation from the others. When two teenagers are caught trying to siphon gas from Lee’s truck, he elaborately creates a scene in which he debates with himself and Jesse over whether he should kill them. Even though his rifle has no bullets, Lee assumes an authority that is as impressive as it is frightening. In the right time, he probably would have made a vicious soldier.
Jesse is a puzzling character. He is obviously attracted to Lee and apparently is not discouraged by his partner’s slimy ethics and mangy life-style. Jesse notes Lee’s low-life characteristics but never editorializes—probably because he has no firm convictions himself. He is, in a manner of speaking, in Lee’s tow. He is drawn to Lee’s women—especially Elizabeth, who seems to be the sanest and most truly self-sufficient character in the book.
Elizabeth works part of the year as a prostitute, so that she can live the rest of the time as she likes. She is a professional and very good at pleasing men when she is on the job. If they want her to make them uncomfortable, she obliges. When she is not employed, however, she is sensitive and decent. She is obviously a woman of considerable self-confidence who copes with a corrupt society in order to get what she wants. Her sense of...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Lee Mellon, an unemployed, twenty-three-year-old iconoclast who claims to be a descendant of a Confederate general. Assertive, apolitical, unreflective, and hedonistic, Lee is an existential rebel, a “rebel without a cause,” who pursues independence and pleasure with the energetic determination of a military campaign. Amoral and self-centered, Lee manages to survive by panhandling, stealing, extorting, and generally taking advantage of the people he meets. Because none of these techniques is very successful, Lee often must rely on his considerable ability to endure material deprivations. After spending a depressing year in an abandoned house in Oakland, a period in which his only triumph is tapping into the local utility’s gas line, Lee travels to Big Sur, where he camps out in some ill-built shacks on borrowed land. There he lives from day to day, battling the frogs that keep him awake at night, courting Elizabeth, and contending with Johnston Wade’s neurotic antics.
Jesse, the novel’s narrator and the chronicler of Lee Mellon’s exploits. After a disappointing love affair with a girl named Cynthia, Jesse leaves San Francisco and joins Lee at Big Sur. A sensitive and passive opposite to Lee, Jesse describes himself as an unemployed minister. In the absence of a spiritual calling or a firm basis for belief, he retreats into an absurdist minimalism—represented by his careful enumeration of...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Unlike Trout Fishing in America (1967), Confederate General from Big Sur has no traditional characters. The novel is narrated by Jesse, a mild-mannered theological student, a minister without a church. In the absence of a calling, Jesse retreats into a passive and fatalistic acceptance of the world around him. He becomes an observer who refuses to judge or analyze.
The focus of the novel is Lee Mellon, a self-proclaimed Confederate general. Mellon, the unreflective, and sometimes cruel, man of war, is Jesse's opposite, but both he and Jesse are examples of the American literary character — Huck Finn, Ishmael, Jay Gatsby — who creates a reality that matches what he envisions and needs. Mellon is a man without ideology, without worldly ambitions. He is alienated from the political and social concerns of his society. As his link with the Confederacy implies, Lee Mellon is a loser in the eyes of the world. In the end, Mellon is an unconsciously existential rebel for whom rebellion is its own end, a "rebel without a cause." His only victory is survival and, more importantly, the survival of self.
The other characters exhibit similar states of alienation. Johnston Wade is a businessman who has been driven mad by the pressures of his middle-class life. Elaine and Susan are bored products of the bourgeoisie who amuse themselves with their sexual adventures at Big Sur. Elizabeth is an idealized woman who supports her four children and...
(The entire section is 249 words.)