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.