Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
Clinton Williams, the viewpoint character and narrator of portions of the story through his journal. He is approximately sixteen years old during most of the action in the novel. Like Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), he is perceptive and articulate, but he is far more idealistic and gullible. Clinton, a romantic, experiences emotional liberation through his painful epiphany. Although he wants to be a writer, he cannot produce anything except verbatim transcriptions of other people’s speech and correspondence because he has not yet learned how to synthesize his experience. The story primarily concerns his liberation from bondage to illusions, accomplished through his insights into his brother Berry-berry’s true character. There is a strong suggestion that Clinton’s adoration of Berry-berry has homosexual overtones and that the story really is about the disenchanted protagonist’s attainment of freedom to form a wholesome heterosexual relationship when he finds an appropriate love object.
Ralph Williams, Clinton’s father, who was a political activist and dynamic personality in his youth. He appears to have been emasculated by a dull marriage and his effort to maintain middle-class respectability. He deals in real estate but does not do well at it because of his anticapitalist sentiments and his chronic depression. He is a heavy solitary drinker. He feels despised and rejected because both Clinton and his wife, Annabel, have directed all their love toward the rebellious, charismatic Berry-berry. Ralph stands in sharp contrast to Berry-berry, who has no respect for convention or middle-class morality.
Annabel Williams, Clinton’s mother, a drab, unimaginative housewife with an unhealthy emotional attachment to her older son. There is a strong suggestion that she may even have had an incestuous relationship with Berry-berry. At any rate, he loathes and fears her. She is the most symbolic of all the characters in the novel; she represents an unfavorable image of American middle-class women in general. Annabel’s unwholesome possessiveness is largely responsible for Berry-berry’s cruelty to women and his dread of forming a permanent relationship with a woman. Clinton escapes the same destructive influence because most of his mother’s affection is directed at his older brother, who can be regarded as a victim as well as a victimizer.
Berry-berry Williams, Clinton’s handsome, predatory older brother, who is about twenty-three years old when most of the events of the novel take place. His unusual first name suggests “beriberi,” a serious disease. He is self-centered and incapable of realizing that other people have feelings or exist as independent entities. Berry-berry can be very likable and can project an illusion of human sympathy and affection. It is precisely because he is completely lacking in normal human emotions that he is so fascinating to women: He has learned to mimic affection and sympathy through a natural flair for imitation common to psychopathic personalities. Although Berry-berry is not the hero or the viewpoint character, he is the sun around whom all the other characters revolve, or perhaps a “disease” with which all the other characters are infected.
Echo O’Brien, a virgin in her early thirties. Because she has lived a sheltered life as her invalid mother’s nurse and constant companion, she has remained sweet and innocent. Her alarmingly childlike trust in the essential goodness of everyone she encounters makes her a prime target for tragedy. Her wholesomeness provides a striking contrast to the sickness of the members of Clinton’s dysfunctional family. Her first name, Echo, suggests that she possesses an instinctive responsiveness and authentic ability to relate to other people, something Berry-berry only projects through mimicry. She is a mirror in which the other characters view their own hypocrisy and unworthiness. Most important, she is the catalyst directly responsible for the change in the relationship between Clinton and Berry-berry.
Shirley, a young prostitute who introduces Clinton to sex and begins the boy’s long process of disillusionment with Berry-berry by telling him cold facts about his older brother’s parasitical and sadistic behavior. This gentle, generous young woman serves as the novel’s only concrete example of the kind of women Berry-berry habitually exploits.
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