Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ellen Thatcher, the character who helps keep together the amorphous plot of the novel. She is an actress who lives through chaotic times, America just before and after World War I. She becomes a success as an actress, a failure as a woman. She is married three times, but never to the one man she loves.
Jimmy Herf, an arrival from Europe who comes to New York with his widowed mother; she dies shortly after their arrival. He is unhappy and tries to find himself. He works on a newspaper before the war and does Red Cross work with Ellen in Europe during the hostilities. He and Ellen marry and have a child, but they drift apart. Still confused but happy, he leaves New York.
George Baldwin, a cautious, intelligent lawyer and a ruthless, self-centered opportunist. He steers a shrewd course through New York City politics, but proves his emotional immaturity in his affairs with women. He is Ellen’s third husband, whom she marries not out of love but because of apathy.
Joe Harland, Herf’s blacksheep relative who, having won and lost several fortunes in Wall Street, finally settles for a job as a night watchman in order to earn whiskey money.
Gus McNiel, a milkman who, through the good work done by George Baldwin, wins a financial settlement after he has been run over by...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Manhattan Transfer Characters. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
In characterization, as in techniques and themes, Manhattan Transfer is a breakthrough for its author. Although he pioneered the contrasting of three distinct intersecting narratives in Three Soldiers (1921) and Streets of Night (1923), for the first time in his work Dos Passos used characterization techniques that would become his trademark. The focus is on the characters as satiric rather than empathic vehicles, and a tendency toward what many critics call the "picaro" style of characterization, which involves a tendency to tell several characters' stories from their childhood through a randomly determined moment in their lives. In Manhattan Transfer we are introduced to the principal characters during very early, formative moments, Ed Thatcher gets stuck with the celebratory tab at a bar after Ellen's birth, and a very young Jimmy Herf returns to New York on July 4 with his ailing mother.
As the narrative builds, these two merging stories become the central focus as Jimmy falls in love with Ellen at first sight and she comes to depend on him as her relationships with other men disintegrate. Long before they marry, we as readers perceive intuitively that the extensive background information we have on these characters distinguishes them from the others in terms of psychological depth, and that Dos Passos intends to suggest the effects of their childhood experiences on the kinds of persons these characters eventually become....
(The entire section is 1804 words.)