The Characters (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Kenneth Toomey is clearly the controlling figure in Earthly Powers. All the action is seen through his eyes and reported in his words. He is convincingly drawn, an old man with a keen memory and much to remember. He is wholly secular and materialistic. He is convinced that evil triumphs over good, as it certainly has in the situations involving the deaths of John, Laura, Eve, and Michael Breslow, Eve’s husband.
The ironies around which the whole book revolves are linked to Carlo’s institutionalized goodness. Carlo represents the Church, and he comes to represent it at its highest level, the papacy. Carlo, never an ascetic, enjoys the pleasures of the world and has indulged fully in most of them, save for sex. Still, he believes in the power of good, and lives his life accordingly. His triumphs, however, turn into evil of the worst sort.
Hortense is a strong secondary character, ever the understanding and supportive sister of a brother who at times severely tries the patience of all who know him. Her taking a lesbian lover certainly brings her closer to understanding her brother’s orientation, and the events that come about through her taking Dorothy as her lover are central to the development of the novel’s highly convoluted plot.
Burgess does a fine job in presenting the substantial array of lovers who passed through Kenneth’s life. Their bitchiness and self-concern, intermixed at times with kindness and seemingly genuine love, demonstrate Burgess’ understanding of the dynamics of homosexual love affairs, particularly those that flourished before the topic was as openly discussed as it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Kenneth Marchal Toomey
Kenneth Marchal Toomey, a homosexual and best-selling author. His struggle with homosexuality and his search for truths beyond Catholic moral values are the twin forces driving his life. From the vantage point of his eighty-first birthday (celebrated in his Malta retreat), he looks back on his sixty-year exile from England’s conventional sexual values and on a career as an internationally renowned novelist and playwright. For much of that time, he has been careful to ensure public acceptance by writing from a heterosexual point of view; only late in life has he had the courage to declare his true preferences. In recalling the major episodes of his life, he emerges as a man dominated by his inner struggle to reconcile his homosexuality with Catholic moral values. He must also come to terms with his suspicion that, despite a fertile imagination and verbal brilliance, he possesses only a second-rate talent. Although he meets adversity with consistent detachment bolstered by a brittle wit, at bottom Toomey is a tender and caring man, deeply committed to his private code of love and fidelity. His trust in even the most mendacious of his lovers makes him a natural victim. With a single exception, his love for other men has been cheapened by them, and his fidelity betrayed. Love and fidelity nevertheless remain the prominent threads running through his character: intense love for his difficult sister and fidelity to some form of the Catholicism that would place him among the damned. In the end, even when the evidence of evil perpetrated by earthly powers has brought disillusionment with the world, he embraces the values of platonic love and spiritual peace in his final years with his sister.
Hortense Campanati, Kenneth’s sister, an internationally famed sculptor. An attractive, bright young woman (ten years younger than Kenneth), Hortense is more at home with her Catholic values than he, and she often criticizes his sexual morality. She learns to incorporate the dark side of life into her religious beliefs. Like her brother, Hortense has her share of suffering with which to come to terms: the breakup of her marriage, the loss of an eye, and the deaths of her lover, son, and granddaughter within a short period of time. She has the resilience of character to retain both dignity and inner peace...
(The entire section is 973 words.)