The Slave Dancer focuses on a young man's search for self-knowledge. Caught up in the machinations of a corrupt society, thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier must define himself through his actions while living in psychological, moral, and physical isolation from his family and friends. Jessie is the only musician on board the ship and the only white character who cares about the slaves as human beings. To his horror, though, Jessie finds himself adopting some of the older men's attitudes as the voyage progresses. He cannot resist the slavers physically, but he resists morally and intellectually and both survives and grows because of this resistance.
The ship's officers and crew compose a rogue's gallery of characters. They range in moral quality from the bluff but honest sailor Clay Purvis, to the conniving, treacherous sailor Benjamin Stout, to the sniveling, savage mate Nicholas Spark, to the unpredictable, sadistic, and selfish Captain Cawthorne. The other adult sailors are less sharply drawn, their characters largely defined by the moral corruption brought on by their work on a slave ship.
Ras, the young slave who survives the shipwreck with Jessie, is the only slave in the novel given a name. Fox does not develop the characters of the other slaves; individuals emerge from the crowd only as they become the victims of specific cruelties. Daniel, the old black man who helps Jessie and Ras after the shipwreck, stands in marked contrast to...
Thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier makes a few pennies each day by playing his fife in the rougher districts of 1840s New Orleans. He, his mother, and his young sister Betty are very poor, and they own almost nothing, living in a single damp room on Pirate's Alley where his mother works as a seamstress for the wealthy women of New Orleans.
Until this point, Jessie has largely been protected from experiencing the horrors of slavery because his family is too poor to own slaves and because his mother has forbidden him to loiter near the slave market. He dreams of being rich one day, "in a fine suit, with a thousand candles to hand if I needed them instead of three grudgingly given stubs. I imagined the splendid house I would live in, my gardens, my carriage and horses." He is intrigued by the slaves he sees, curious about their lives.
In January of 1840, while he is walking along daydreaming, Jessie is abducted by sailors who have seen him playing his fife. They carry him off to a slave ship called the Moonlight, and tell him that after the ship reaches Africa and they take on slaves, his job will be to play for the slaves so that they will "dance" and thus keep themselves strong, fit, and profitable.
The voyage is a living hell for Jessie, who sees the slaves treated worse than animals and who finds depths of ugliness within himself that he never dreamed existed. Forced to have his whole existence revolve around the slaves, he is shocked to...
Purvis is an Irishman and one of the two sailors who abduct Jessie and carry him off to the Moonlight. Purvis has seen Jessie playing his fife in the market earlier and has even given him money. "Don't you remember a man who gave you money?" he asks Jessie. "I'm about to do even more for you. I'm going to take you on a fine sea voyage." Purvis is a big, rough man with a mocking sense of humor, and though he is uneducated and loutish, he has a soft spot for Jessie, disguised under his rough treatment of him. For example, one day when Jessie begins to cry with homesickness, Purvis picks him up, shakes him, and threatens to hang him up in the rigging—in an attempt to take his mind off it. He is a good sailor, never idle, skilled at many tasks on board, and a good teller of sea tales. When Ben Stout steals an egg from the captain's private supply, Purvis is blamed and takes the flogging that results without protest.
Purvis is a man of his time, and he does not have much sympathy for the slaves, regarding them as less than human and noting that his own Irish ancestors crossed the sea in conditions just as bad as theirs. When Jessie shows any sympathy for the slaves, Purvis is enraged, as if sympathy for them somehow lessens his ancestors' suffering. He asks Jessie, "Do you know my father was haunted all his days by the memory of those who died before his eyes in that ship, and were flung into the sea? And you dare speak of my parents in the same breath with...
At first, Ben Stout appears to be trustworthy; the first thing he says to Jessie is, "I'm sorry for what's been done to you." Unlike the other sailors, he is quiet and polite. Like Jessie, he was forced to become a sailor but eventually came to like it and quickly becomes bored and restless on land. He takes Jessie in hand, shows him around the ship, and gives him clothes to wear, as well as a chunk of bread, and tells him what chores to do. Other than Purvis, he is the only crewmember who takes much notice of Jessie at all. Although he seems kind, this is only a thin veneer over an untrustworthy and sly heart: Stout steals an egg, blames Purvis, and then, at the Captain's orders, assists in flogging Purvis for the crime Stout did. He speaks the slaves' language and talks softly to them, saying things that Jessie cannot understand but which seem to drive the slaves mad with fear or sadness. He seems to take pleasure in tormenting people in this subtle, sly way. Jessie stops trusting him and regards him with deep mistrust and fear. Stout is bothered by this since he wants to influence Jessie. "I've been so good to you," he says. "I don't understand your ingratitude. They've all talked against me. I suppose that accounts for it." Jessie does not answer him. Purvis later tells Jessie, "He is dead. He's been dead for years." He tells Jessie there is someone like him on almost every ship: someone spiritually, morally dead, "and no one's the wiser until two weeks at sea...
Agatha is Jessie's aunt (the sister of his father) and is more well-to-do than the Bolliers. They turn to her in times of trouble, asking for small things, such as extra candles so that Jessie's mother can stay up late working on dresses. Since Jessie's father's death, Agatha has been irritable and withdrawn, and she is also fussy and demanding, telling Jessie how to walk and warning him not to be clumsy with her furniture whenever he enters her house. Jessie says, "I had no other memory of Aunt Agatha except as a woman who especially disliked me." Agatha dislikes the fact that Jessie makes a living playing the fife and tells him he should be apprenticed and learn a respectable trade, saying that she doubts he would gain any benefit from school. However, she is generous with her candles and other gifts, and although Fox never says this directly, the reader senses that Agatha does care about Jessie; She wants his life to be better than it is but can't express this wish in a positive way. When Jessie eventually returns from his long and harrowing journey, she treats Jessie with affection and kindness and no longer accuses him of being a "bayou lout."
Betty is Jessie's sister. She is four years younger than he and has little part in the story. She is quiet and kind, and he thinks of her often during the voyage. When he comes back, she is even nicer to him, treating him like an invalid. When he moves to Rhode Island, he sends for her and his mother and takes care of both of them financially.
Mrs. Bollier is Jessie's mother, a young widow who was originally from Massachusetts. She makes her living by sewing dresses for the wealthy ladies of New Orleans. One of the only beautiful things in their one-room home is her wooden sewing box, which has a winged fish carved on the top and beside which sits her basket of spools of bright thread. Jessie says, "By candlelight, the warmth of the colors made me think the thread would throw off a perfume like a garden of flowers." Sometimes, their home is filled with her work—rich swathes of damask or silk. She is harried and worried, always struggling to make enough money to feed her children. Even after Jessie returns from his voyage, his mother still sometimes weeps at the thought of what he has been through and at the thought of what happened to the slaves. Perhaps because of her Northern upbringing, she is against slavery. She warns Jessie to stay away from the market where slaves are sold and is shocked to hear of a slave called Star by her owner: "It's not a human name," she says.
Captain of the Moonlight, he is a ruthless man with a capricious temper, who, when he first meets Jessie, picks him up and bites his ear hard enough to draw blood, as a sort of warning about who's boss on the ship. His crew is afraid of him, although they know that on other ships there are captains who are worse. He lives in relative luxury on the ship, with private quarters, good food, and plenty of water, when the others do without, and he does not hesitate to flog Purvis when he is accused of stealing an egg from the captain's hen. He is single-mindedly devoted to profit and despises the anti-slavery British ships that run down slavers and confiscate their slaves and...