Jesse Harte, later Vogel, and then Pedersen, a high school student who survives his distraught father’s murder of the remaining Harte family, during the Depression, in upper New York State. When his grandfather Vogel pays his hospital bills, he agrees to be called Jesse Vogel and to live on the old man’s remote farm, until he is placed in an orphanage. Dr. Karl Pedersen adopts him when he is sixteen years old, on condition that he now be known as Jesse Pedersen and prepare for a medical career. After a few years, however, Jesse cannot recognize his face as his own any longer and leaves to work his own way through medical school. By the age of twenty-four, he has fallen under the influence of instructor Talbot Waller Monk, whose callous treatment of patients’ bodies further confuses his sense of identity and worth. He breaks his engagement with nurse Anne-Marie Seton and, to be close to the distinguished doctor Benjamin Cady, marries Cady’s daughter Helene. Remembering his own lost childhood, he can weep over hospitalized battered children. Busily furthering his career and becoming involved with the mysterious Reva Denk, however, he ignores his two daughters’ need for a father. As a result, one daughter, Michelle, joins a drug commune in Canada. Awakened at last to how he has failed his family, Jesse follows her and buys her back from Noel, her onetime lover.
Dr. Karl Pedersen
Dr. Karl Pedersen, a mystic and physician famous for instinctual diagnoses. He adopts Jesse as a substitute for his own children, both of whom are considered geniuses but neither of whom shows any promise in the field of medicine. As head of his own clinic as well as of his family, he is a completely domineering figure. What he considers necessary discipline his children maintain is an attempt to devour them. When Jesse finally runs away from the destructive demands of his adoptive father, Dr. Pedersen pronounces him dead.
Mary Pedersen, an ordinary woman who has become obese and addicted to alcohol because she cannot live up to her husband’s standards of perfection. She enjoys Jesse because he alone is willing to talk to her. She joins him when, having seen his own face in a mirror as that of a fat stranger, he flees to Buffalo. Mary is weak-willed, however, and returns to Dr. Pedersen and to imprisonment within her widening flesh.
Hilda Pedersen, a brilliant thirteen-year-old who feels ugly in the eyes of her father. Knowing that she is a mathematical prodigy is little comfort to her in the face of his unconcealed rejection and her mother’s reference...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)