On one level, Jo Stoyte is simply another of the many satiric portraits of the self-made American businessman that appear frequently in British and American fiction of the 1920’s and 1930’s. He eagerly pursues money and relishes a lavish, tasteless display of the material things that money can buy, from the swimming pool on the terrace of his castle to the painting by Jan Vermeer in his elevator. He is grossly sensual in his desire for Virginia but is also gratified by her regarding him as a paternal benefactor. He sees no inconsistency in exploiting migrant workers by paying them the lowest wages possible, while at the same time sentimentally supporting a children’s hospital and donating large sums of money to Tarzana College for buildings that will bear his name. Yet Stoyte is not entirely a one-dimensional figure. His drive to achieve financial success stems from his experience of poverty as a child and his being ridiculed as a fat boy in school, and his love for Virginia, although limited in depth, is tender and genuine. In spite of the fact that Stoyte is a satiric figure, he invites some degree of compassion.
Virginia Maunciple and Peter Boone are less complex, although they, like Jo Stoyte, are treated with both satire and compassion. Virginia combines ingenuousness with sensuality, and though unintelligent, her sense of guilt over her affair with Obispo is intense. Peter is almost equally naive in his idealistic love of Virginia and in his devotion to the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, and he is eager in his pursuit of such truth as he can comprehend.
Sigmund Obispo is almost a stock figure of a villainous scientist. He carries out the research that may prolong Stoyte’s life, but feels only contempt for Stoyte himself. His pleasure in repeatedly seducing Virginia is intensified by his awareness of Virginia’s reluctance.
Jeremy Pordage is characterized as a somewhat absurd example of an upper-class English scholar, but he functions in the novel primarily as a central consciousness in which all the other characters are reflected. He has the intellectual background, the human compassion, and the ironic detachment to comprehend the garish culture of Southern California, the absurd and pathetic quest of Jo Stoyte, and the arcane theories of William Propter.
In considering these characters it is important to remember that Huxley was writing a satire and a novel of ideas. He was not so much interested in creating vivid, “living” characters as he was in creating characters who would represent or express his philosophical perspectives. From this point of view, the most important character in the novel is one who takes almost no part in the main action, William Propter. Propter exists in the novel as Huxley’s mouthpiece. A former university professor who now lives simply on a farm near Stoyte’s castle, Propter has written a book which Pordage greatly admires for its scholarship. A boyhood acquaintance of Stoyte and the only person who did not tease Stoyte for being fat, he can interpret Stoyte’s character for Pordage. A person who provides decent shelter for the migrant workers while also trying to show them how they are in some measure responsible for their own plight, he exhibits the two virtues Huxley regards as important: understanding and compassion. As Peter’s mentor, he expresses in several long conversations the ideas which, for Huxley, were probably the main reason for writing this novel.
Jeremy Pordage, an Englishman hired to work for six months in California cataloging the Hauberk papers, twenty-seven crates of fragments of English history relating to the Hauberk family. He has blue eyes and a bald spot on the top of his head, and he wears spectacles; he looks the scholar and gentleman that he is. He is amazed by the vulgarity of California and of his employer, Jo Stoyte, a self-made millionaire. Pordage is a bachelor tied to an emotionally devouring mother. He is a civilized...
(The entire section is 1,725 words.)