These fictional frames are extended by reference to various types of literature, each providing appropriate characters, cast from the resources of realism, folklore, mythology, and popular culture. Each of these characters is driven by one or two prevailing forces and contrasts or complements another character in the novel.
One stratum of characters—such as the narrator’s uncle and Anthony Lamont—represents workaday Dublin. With his unerring ear for the intonation and cliches of common speech, O’Brien renders a convincing, realistic image of their materialism, servitude, and philistinism; they have no appreciation of the wonders of the imagination which constitute the world they inhabit. A related group is made up of the narrator and his university student friends: The most intelligent of the rising generation of Irishmen, they represent various degrees of independence from staid society, although the avenues by which they express their departure from convention betray their own immaturity: excessive drink, coarse conversation, and strained efforts to impress with a little learning.
From Irish folklore come the Good Fairy and the Pooka, and from the popular romance of the American cowboy come the hired hands of William Tracy. These characters provide variant mythologizations of the archetypal struggle between Good and Evil, and the interweaving of their subplots, dialects, and Dublin city references develops the fantastic humor and satirical thrust of the novel.
From Celtic mythology, on the other hand, come the weightier figures of Finn MacCool and King Sweeny. While together they form a heroic and eloquent contrast with prosaic modern characters and values, they are comic and tragic counterparts to each other. Finn’s sociability, versatility, size, and absurdity contrast with Sweeny’s alienation, suffering, and physical lightness. Between them, they represent a world of feeling and aspiration larger than those found in any other dimension of the novel, a world hospitable to women, drink, and poetry, which cultivates the love of nature, acknowledges the presence of a Creator, and accepts with humor the pain of the human condition.