Across the River and into the Trees Characters

Ernest Hemingway

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The protagonist, Colonel Richard Cantwell, a fifty-one-year-old professional soldier, is dying of heart disease. A veteran of both world wars, he seeks to relive his earlier life among friends and former comrades in Venice. He narrates his most important experiences to Renata, whose name means “reborn.” A man with strong likes and dislikes and some regrets, he avoids laying blame. Aggressive, somewhat short-tempered, he struggles to keep control over a truculent nature. An existential hero who conquers despair and angst, he lives by his code and feels most strongly drawn to those like himself, wounded by war or life. He quotes William Shakespeare and Dante and appreciates great works of art, but he is no mere aesthete: He lives life to the fullest and dies courageously. Lacking illusions, he nevertheless holds strong personal values—physical exertion, comradeship, kindness toward the weak, chivalry toward women, toughness toward oneself.

Renata, an Italian countess nearly nineteen, genuinely loves Cantwell. A woman of beauty, sensitivity, and wisdom beyond her years, she attempts to keep the dying colonel optimistic and forward-looking, even as she hears the unfolding story of his past. Like him, she is somewhat guarded in the expression of emotion, but her depth of feeling is undeniable.

Jackson, a technical sergeant and the colonel’s driver, has shared the military experience of war, having served in the Italian campaign. To a degree, he also shares the colonel’s temper and sense of dignity. His name may suggest to the colonel the quotation from Stonewall Jackson that gives the novel its title.

The Gran Maestro, who has the dignity and reserve of a headwaiter, fought with the colonel in World War I. He now suffers from ulcers and a heart condition less serious than the colonel’s. The two experience a kind of magical brotherhood when they are talking of their order, a magic that vanishes whenever the Gran Maestro returns to his duties. A complement of boatmen, barmen, and waiters, each making a brief appearance, remind the reader that the hero meets them on terms of easy familiarity. Sketched with brevity and economy, they exist primarily to reveal facets of Cantwell’s character or past experience.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Richard Cantwell

Richard Cantwell, a colonel in the U.S. Army Infantry who is dying of heart failure after fighting in World War II. A battered and much-decorated fifty-one-year-old professional soldier with cold steel eyes and wild boar blood, he returns to Venice, Italy, the city he loves most, to hunt ducks before he dies. In addition to a breaking heart, he has an injured leg, a crippled right hand that still cracks open, a broken nose, head wounds, and scars on his face. He defended Venice as a lieutenant in the Italian army and has many friends. Most recently, he fought in the invasion of Normandy, helped to liberate Paris, was made a brigadier general, and was later unjustly demoted to colonel. In his life, he has lost three battalions and three women. When he falls in love with Renata, a refined Venetian girl, he is able to surrender command and follow her spiritual authority. In turn, he educates her and calls her Daughter. He is a rough yet cultured man and shares with Renata excellent taste in paintings, literature, people, food, and wine. Very critical of himself, he always tries to be just to others but is inclined by nature and experience in war to be impatient, angry, and brutal. Condemning bad leadership in World War II that cost many lives, he calls himself Mister Dante. Renata brings out his saving nature and helps him purge his bitterness, fight against brutality, and die a graceful death.


Renata, a countess from an old Venetian...

(The entire section is 615 words.)