Who is good, who is bad, and who is in the middle in The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Father Ralph de Bricassart is a good but mixed character in The Thorn Birds. McCullough writes of Father Ralph, "His patience and kindness had brought him liking from all and sincere love from some." Father Ralph is a benevolent and good-humored parish priest who eventually becomes a cardinal. He looks after Meggie, who is largely abandoned by her cruel father and disaffected mother and who is the only girl in a family of boys. Eventually, however, Father Ralph shows his all-too-human side when he has a sexual relationship with Meggie. Years later, he realizes that Meggie's son, Dane, is his and thinks:

"He tried to see what it was he had done wrong. Too much wrong, that was the trouble. Pride, ambition, a certain unscrupulousness. And love for Meggie flowering among them."

In other words, Father Ralph, while kind, is still a figure troubled by his competing devotion to the church and his desire and love for Meggie. He is too blinded by ambition to ascend in the church hierarchy to recognize that Meggie has had his son.

Dane, the child conceived from Meggie's relationship with Father Ralph, is a truly good character. Dane, who has just become a priest, is swimming in the Mediterranean when he rescues two women from drowning and then dies in the attempt. Even as he is dying, he thinks:

"Dearest Lord, Thy pain! I must accept it, I must not fight it, I must not fight Thy will. Thy hand is mighty and this is Thy pain, as Thou must have felt it on the Cross."

Dane's death is compared to Jesus's crucifixion, as Dane is a truly selfless character who dies while sacrifices himself for others.

The truly evil character in the novel is Luke O'Neill, who is a ranch hand. Meggie marries him even though she doesn't really love him. Even on their honeymoon, Luke is impatient and rude with Meggie. McCullough writes about Luke's interaction with his new bride, "He had spoken to her as one speaks to an irresponsible child." Luke cares little for his wife, and he immediately leaves her to go off to harvest sugarcane, as he cares more for money than for having a family. Instead of settling down with Meggie, he finds her a job as a maid. Later, when she has a daughter named Justine, Luke doesn't even bother sending Meggie a response to her telegram letting him know that he is a father. Luke is a cold man who is obsessed with money and cares little for others, and he doesn't possess the kindness of Father Ralph and Dane. 

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The Thorn Birds

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