List of Characters
Narrator—unnamed. Moves in and out of the story.
Violet Trace—The main character, a hairdresser. She has been married to Joe Trace for 20 years. She has trouble holding on to her husband and her sanity. When her husband shoots his lover, Violet is thrown out of the funeral for trying to disfigure the corpse’s face.
Joe Trace—A main character, the husband of Violet, a cosmetics salesman. He has named himself Trace because he can find no trace of his mother.
Dorcas Manfred—The 18-year-old girl that Joe falls in love with. She is being raised by her aunt Alice Manfred because her parents were killed in racial incidents. Her only interest is to explore her sexuality.
Wild—Joe Trace’s mother. She could not speak and lived almost like an animal in the cane fields. Joe was hurt that she could never care for him or acknowledge him as a child.
Golden Gray—A white-skinned man whose blood is half black. He is named for the color of his eyes. As a child, he was cared for by Violet’s grandmother, True Belle. His mother is Vera Louise Gray and his father is Henry Lestory. When he finds out his father is black, he vows to kill him.
Rose Dear—Violet Trace’s mother. The pressures of trying to provide for her children lead her to commit suicide by throwing herself down a well.
True Belle—Violet’s grandmother, Rose Dear’s mother. She comes to the rescue of the family when they are penniless. She also raised Joe’s father, Golden Gray
(The entire section is 634 words.)
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The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Morrison chose to present the story of Joe, Violet, and the others through a narrator who is seemingly all-knowing though by no means objective. She is in everybody’s business not simply because she is nosy or wants to interfere but because she needs to understand people, their past, their circumstances, and their relationships. She tries to reveal the truth. She will also admit when she has had to imagine the truth, when she has fallen short in presenting it, and when she has failed. An individual’s truth is not easily discernible, and it is not apparent all at once. It also contradicts. Therefore, the narrator’s explanation of the events dominating the lives of a few people on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue during the first three months of 1926 requires an account of recent history, music, magazines, newspapers, and hairstyles.
Although Joe Trace is a murderer, he is drawn sympathetically. The neighborhood women trust the door-to-door cosmetics salesman to come into their homes, to escort them home at night, and to warn the young ones of city dangers. He is their neighbor, their friend. Everyone knows that Joe killed Dorcas, but because no one saw him do it, because Dorcas’s aunt, Alice Manfred, knows the futility of calling white policemen to investigate a black girl’s murder, and because Joe has suffered so, he goes unprosecuted. Joe Trace does not conform to the violent urban stereotype. His strong back and keen knowledge of nature helped him survive in rural Virginia and gave him and his wife a poor but happy life. In coming to the City, Joe climbed the rungs of the ladder available to African American men. His desire to regain young loving and to fill the void left by his mother, who refused to touch his hand in the Vesper County woods, and by his silent wife, causes him to lose control of himself and his life.
Understanding Violet is just as difficult. The fifty-year-old woman readers see at the novel’s beginning, one who drinks malteds laced with Dr. Dee’s Nerve and Flesh Builder in an attempt to regain her long-lost hips and who is called...
(The entire section is 850 words.)
The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Joe Trace, a middle-aged salesman, gains the reader’s sympathy despite his seemingly perfidious acts that begin the novel. A charming, avuncular man, trusted in his community, Joe nevertheless takes an eighteen-year-old girl as his mistress. He drifts into this unsavory behavior because of his wife’s emotional withdrawal and his own midlife melancholy, but also because he sees Dorcas as a needy, vulnerable girl whom he wants, in his own odd way, to protect. The reader feels sorry for Joe in the flashback passages when he is tracking Wild, his inaccessible mother; despite his grimmer purpose, Joe’s tracking of Dorcas, when he has lost control of their relationship and of himself, retains some of that pathos from earlier in his life.
Violet Trace is a fifty-year-old hairdresser who is hardworking but subject to spells of emotional derangement. The reader’s attitude toward Violet shifts from shock over her desperate violence at Dorcas’s funeral to sympathy when one learns of the traumas of Violet’s past, particularly her mother’s suicide. Ironically, after striking out in hate against Dorcas’s corpse, Violet then becomes preoccupied with the life of the dead teenager. Fortunately, Violet finds Alice Manfred to be the kind of caring maternal figure that Violet has missed having in her life, and with Alice’s help, Violet regains her emotional balance.
Dorcas, the catalyst for the most violent acts in the novel, is viewed differently by different characters. The narrator presents her as an emotionally damaged adolescent who chases the thrills of Harlem to escape her painful past, while on a deeper level she...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
The narrator, never identified by name. Her voice and vision are always unmistakable. Like the neighborhood gossip, she sees, hears, and knows everything. What she does not know, she imagines, chastising herself when she is not as accurate or as reliable as she should be. She is the storyteller who must get the whole story right.
Violet Trace, born in rural Virginia, the third of five children whose insane mother drowned herself in a well. Her father visited his family occasionally as he worked underground for a political party “that favored nigger voting.” His absence led to his family’s dispossession. She is reared for eleven years by her grandmother, whose Baltimore stories of the beloved blond-haired son of her mistress and a local African American boy corrupt Violet’s image of herself and her race. She marries Joe Trace and works the fields with him until they migrate north to Harlem. Twenty years later, she loses control over her actions and words, retreating into silence until a second Violet emerges to strike out at her husband’s dead girlfriend. By “killing” that Violet and befriending the dead girl’s best friend, Felice, Violet restores herself.
Joe Trace, an orphan and a survivor. He says he remade himself eight times during his life, the last being one time too many. Joe is described as a handsome fifty-year-old, a nice, neighborly man who straightens the children’s toys in front of the apartment building, whom people let into their homes to sell...
(The entire section is 651 words.)