The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Joyce Carol Oates approaches her characters in terms of the nineteenth century style she has elected. They are at once symbolic and epic, in service to the narrative, not so much developed as outlined externally by the narrator known as The Editor. As symbols, they are aptly named. Consider the two Kilgarvan sisters who relate to Xavier. Thérèse, the constant, pure one who unselfishly and unrequitedly loves Xavier, carries the name of a saintly mystic. She is the epitome of the nineteenth century gentlewoman. Perdita’s name means “the lost one,” and certainly she brings to Xavier a dark passion that ultimately takes him from his career of exposing malice. In another way, she is lost, for as the prototype of the liberated woman of the new century, she is lost to the Victorian ideal. Xavier Kilgarvan also bears a saint’s name, that of the renowned missionary who brought Christianity to the Far East. Because he was a Jesuit, Saint Francis Xavier is associated both with the passion of God’s love and with cool-headed logic. Xavier is an excellent name for the detective who serves as the central consciousness of the novel, in that the story is presented through Xavier; his innermost thoughts, yearnings, emotional states, religious and ethical convictions are related to readers by The Editor, whose identity remains a mystery (could it be Perdita?). Readers know Xavier to be a good, honest, and courageous man, given to severe headaches when possessed by fear but...

(The entire section is 565 words.)