Cather is able to sketch these people with just a few paragraphs. The picture that emerges is of a mother who dominates through an excess of emotion, a daughter who is withdrawn and embittered, and a husband who has had all his vitality drawn out of him by his wife and living long years in west Kansas. Even though Merrick was their son, there is little real affection there for him.
Here is Cather’s description of the mother:
There was a kind of power about her face—a kind of brutal handsomeness, even; but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so colored and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there. The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end, and there were deep lines on either side of it; her heavy, black brows almost met across her forehead, her teeth were large and square, and set far apart—teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water[.]
The mother’s personality does dominate everyone around her, especially her husband, but for all her force of character she seems impotent in the face of the men who truly control the town, who have gathered to “watch over” the coffin but really spend their time venting petty jealousies about Merrick’s success as an artist. She does nothing to defend her son, or to show that she feels any real connection to him.
The daughter is even more of a cypher, someone whose will seems to be wholly bound up in that of her mother’s. Cather says of her:
The daughter—the tall, raw-boned woman in crêpe, with a mourning comb in her hair which curiously lengthened her long face—sat stiffly upon the sofa, her hands, conspicuous for their large knuckles, folded in her lap, her mouth and eyes drawn down, solemnly awaiting the opening of the coffin.
The daughter’s silence is telling. She seems incapable of action beyond attending to her mother.
The father is also completely dominated by the mother. Enfeebled by age, when his wife summons him to look at their son’s coffin, he slowly emerges, but all his thoughts are about his wife:
"There, there, Annie, dear, don't take on," he quavered timidly, putting out a shaking hand and awkwardly patting her elbow. She turned with a cry, and sank upon his shoulder with such violence that he tottered a little. He did not even glance toward the coffin, but continued to look at her with a dull, frightened, appealing expression, as a spaniel looks at the whip. His sunken cheeks slowly reddened and burned with miserable shame.
The shame he feels is partly due to this public demonstration of his subservience to his wife, but also to a betrayal of whatever love he might have born his talented son. It is only after his wife leaves that he can begin to say what he feels:
He brushed the hair back gently from his son's forehead. "He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of 'em all—only we didn't none of us ever onderstand him." The tears trickled slowly down his beard and dropped upon the sculptor's coat.
In fact, no one from the town, with the possible exception of the lawyer Jim, can understand the sensibility of Merrick, someone who, “whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness, like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress, spell for spell.” The problem the story poses is how it is possible for such a talent to have been nurtured in such a family, and such a place.