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.