Most of the characters in October Light are made to stand for clear-cut, uncompromising political or philosophical positions—positions which they feel driven to expound even when their lives are in danger. Between them, for example, the two main characters exhibit all the conflicting aspects of New England Puritan virtue: Sally, the relentless optimist with a strong drive for progress; James, the relentlessly plodding worker with a seeming incapacity to express any deep emotion other than anger or suspicion of “liberals.” Gardner’s characterizations thus bring to life the “polarization” that was much discussed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, though his narrative suggests that this polarization has deep historical roots. The fact that the two antagonists also are brother and sister underscores this tragedy of irreconcilables.
Some characters are aware of contradictions within themselves but are not able to reconcile them. One such figure is Lewis Hicks, Ginny’s husband, who emerges as an improbable hero:Right and wrong were as elusive as odors in an old abandoned barn. Lewis knew no certainties. . . . He had no patience with people’s complexities . . . not because people were foolish, in Lewis Hicks’ opinion, or because they got through life on gross and bigoted oversimplifications, though they did, he knew, but because . . . he could too easily see all sides and, more often than not, no hint of a solution.
It is ironic that Lewis can see all sides of a question and still feel intolerant of other people’s complexities....
(The entire section is 645 words.)