The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Knowing much because he sees more than the surface of things, William Knox tries his best to make sense of the people he encounters in Kyoto. What little is known about him is that he is an agnostic who regrets his agnosticism and even envies the missionaries’ faith, a widower in his early forties who yearns for someone to love, a highly cultured man with a sound understanding of geopolitical events, of history, and, perhaps most important, of basic psychology.

Frankly puzzled by the missionaries and their wives and by his Japanese neighbors, Knox learns much about them by simply listening to them talk about one another. His caustic wit and ironic sensitivity to the absurd enable him to deal with the claustrophobia, decay, and death he finds in Kyoto.

Knox’s antithesis, M. C. Welling, is a lost soul, a religious man of kindly instincts made desperately unhappy by the absence of his sustaining wife, by the stark failure of his mission to largely pagan Japan, and by the temptations offered by young Sanae, his Japanese student who wears tight blouses. Caught between his religious beliefs and his need for someone he can love both sexually and spiritually, Welling makes the mistake of being in the wrong place (a lonely country road) with the wrong person (Sanae) at the wrong time (just prior to her murder by strangulation). Not bright enough to understand how he could be accused of murder, he turns to William Knox for help. Knox advises him to flee Japan and he does, losing, in the process, his self-esteem and the esteem of his peers.

On the other hand, Asai, Welling’s Japanese student, never compromises his beliefs. He is always true to his inner beliefs, even, as it turns out, if it means dying for...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

The Custom House Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Professor William Knox

Professor William Knox, a British university professor teaching in Kyoto, Japan. Equally impatient with the reticence and formality of the Japanese and the intrusiveness of foreigners, the forty-four-year-old phonetics expert acts as a somewhat weary and ironic commentator on the rapidly changing culture of post-World War II Japan. A widower, he falls in love with his neighbor Setsuko, who, for various reasons, cannot return his love. Knox’s stay in Japan ends when he flies out of the country with the disgraced missionary Welling. At the novel’s end, he is in Greece, his favorite country, where he learns that Setsuko has left Japan.

The Reverend Michael C. Welling

The Reverend Michael C. Welling, an Australian missionary. He is physically attractive yet emotionally weak, as is revealed early in the novel, when he tries to drive away without aiding a woman whom he sideswipes with his car. Welling’s cowardice is also revealed through his own remembrances of how he failed to aid his brother during a shark attack and how he conducted himself during the war. His general unhappiness with his work is ameliorated temporarily when he falls in love with Sanae. The married missionary’s frequent interaction with his beautiful student, however, soon leads to gossip and controversy. When Sanae is found murdered, the innocent and naïve Welling becomes the primary suspect. Characteristically, he chooses to flee the country rather than to face a prolonged trial and likely conviction.


Setsuko, an American-educated chemist who works in a nuclear weapons lab. The daughter of a Japanese father and a Russian mother, she considers herself to be an outsider in all cultures. Her unusual physical features, American education, and unfortunate relationship with her rich and...

(The entire section is 764 words.)