Elsa is an interesting kind of character that fulfills several "character type" definitions, including dynamic, main, round and confidante.
Elsa is a dynamic character because she undergoes character development and changes throughout the play. She is round because her life-story, or character, reveals depth of detail. She may be considered the foil of Miss Helen in some regards because she has opposing character traits that highlight Miss Helen's own, opposite character traits.
Elsa may be considered by some analysts to be the antagonist of the play because she drives Miss Helen so hard to make choices that oppose what Miss Helen's church wants for her and because--in the context of the play's time-frame--Elsa behaves so antagonistically toward Miss Helen. Ultimately, Elsa is a main character in the play because the action and the resolutions to Miss Helen's conflicts could not be set forth without the impetus and direction provided by Elsa, as indicated in Miss Helen's statement of resolution: "I am going to see a doctor and an optician." Additionally, Elsa is a confidante character whose reminiscences and discussions with Miss Helen set out the necessary backstory and the present-time conflicts that both are up against.
HELEN: Then I suppose I've been lucky. I never had any important trusts to betray. . .until I met you. My marriage might look like that, but ... I was never. . .open?. . .to him. Was that the phrase you used? ... I was never "wide open" to anyone. But with you all that changed. ... I trust you.
- Dynamic: Her character development means that by the end of the play Elsa sees more clearly the resolutions to her own personal conflicts (career, boyfriend, abortion): [stage directions as Elsa sobs] "Her moment of emotional release has finally come. She cries, Miss Helen comforts her."
- Round: A full scope of her life details are presented starting with her initial encounter with Miss Helen and including the progress of their friendship, the progress and end of her love affair, her relationship to her students and school board, and her abortion.
- Foil: Her views about personal interactions, religion and the Afrikaner church are diametrically opposed to Miss Helen's and highlight the virtue in Miss Helen's views, which might otherwise be dismissed as archaic and useless.
- Antagonist: While Marius initiates the problems that are Miss Helen's conflicts in the play, he does so out of gentle friendship, while, contrastingly, Elsa's friendship is offered in company with quarrels, antagonistic criticisms and continual baiting on controversial topics [on the other hand, Marius is considered the antagonist by other analysts because, while his on-stage role is small, he is driving Miss Helen into relinquishing her dream and becoming dependent].
- Confidante: Miss Helen confides her troubles in Elsa, and her confidences initiate the occurrences in the play: Elsa comes to her in response to what was confided in Miss Helen's most recent letter.
Elsa Barlow is an open minded, good friend. She is in her thirties, and she is a teacher. The fact that she is Miss Helen's closest friend tells the reader a lot about Elsa's character. Most people have distanced themselves from Miss Helen, so the fact that Elsa still makes an effort to see her and comfort her shows a deep level of commitment.
Elsa is a supportive friend. She knows that Miss Helen has a very different outlook on spirituality, and Elsa is okay with that. In fact, Elsa defends Miss Helen's spirituality in front of Pastor Marius.
What I don't like about Helen though is that she fears commitment. That's not only evidenced by the recent abortion that she had, but it's also evidenced by the fact that she has no feelings toward spirituality either way. She believes in Marius's salvation, because it works for him. She believes in Miss Helen's spirituality, because it works for her. She is the quintessential "do what makes you happy" kind of person. To her, there are no absolutes. It's all different shades of gray. I like her because she is supportive to her friend, but all in all, I find her a weak character.