An Insular Possession Characters

Timothy Mo

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Gideon Chase

Gideon Chase, a young man who, at the age of seventeen, is a junior clerk in the Canton offices of a large American trading firm, the Meridian Company. He is industrious, diligent, quick-witted, and curious. The youngest character and an orphan, he spends much of the first half of the novel watching (and learning from) the others, particularly on their escapades to the “flower boats” and forays into the city proper, as well as to the haven of Macao. Later, he is revealed as the main protagonist, acting on his own initiative, though to higher purpose than his friends; his rites of passage become a main focus of the book. Gideon is at first easily led by his mentor and father figure, Walter Eastman. Gideon absorbs many of Eastman’s attitudes, particularly a distaste for the opium trade promoted by the British empire in China. The younger man soon surpasses the elder, in several ways. When Eastman is ignominiously discharged from his position at Meridian, Gideon resigns in support of his friend; moreover, his is the inspiration to begin the newspaper the two publish, The Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, and his is the more mature and reasonable rhetoric. Gideon also departs from Eastman in his ability (and his willingness) to see the Chinese as people and as individuals, not merely as an abstract value. This attribute is enhanced, if not fostered by, his study of the Chinese language, which, although against the law, allows him to enter the realm of the native. During his excursions through the war, from which struggles Canton emerges as Hong Kong, Gideon learns to see not only the humanity of the oppressed but also the brutality (and sometimes depravity) of the conquerer. Finally, Gideon becomes a more mature, a more discerning, and a more completely developed person than Eastman through his perception of the reality below the gaudy and often deceptive surface.

Walter Eastman

Walter Eastman, a twenty-four-year-old senior clerk with the Meridian Company in Canton. He is outspoken in his condemnation of the British opium trade, through which the empire financed its Indian ventures and realized a substantial...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

If the comic irony of An Insular Possession precludes identifying with Timothy Mo’s characters, they are nevertheless fascinating for their intellectual prowess and dramatic flair. Most subtle among them is certainly Walter Eastman. In a moment conniving to charm the socialite Alice Remington, directing a cast of temperamental amateur actors, eliciting the pity of staunch British patriots for the beleaguered Chinese, disparaging his journalistic rival with the most artful gibes, and perceptively arguing the merits of Impressionist art even while developing techniques of the new daguerreotype, he is an imposing intelligence detached, perhaps so versatile as to be spread too thin, but a master showman. His diversity is appropriately conveyed through a variety of stylistic devices: The narrative is eclipsed by theatrical script, newspaper extracts, letters, and diary entries that illustrate Eastman’s felicity in assuming a persona to suit any occasion. Ultimately, however, his stagecraft is not meant to be deceptive but defensive. His nose somewhat eaten away by smallpox, his pate balding, he is reputed to be the ugliest man in Canton. If he is, then, conceived by Mo as essentially comic, it is because he wishes his compatriots to perceive him as such. Lacking the commodity of beauty, he trades on his wit.

Gideon Chase, however, emerges from the novel more fully realized and empathetic. With both his parents deceased, he arrives in Canton for the second time, hoping to secure a position with the American trading company. When the slightly older Eastman takes a patronizing interest, he latches on to the surrogate father, eager to learn from him, willing to defer to him in all matters. Typically, Eastman leads Chase through the labyrinth of fine wines, offers the...

(The entire section is 730 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

London Review of Books. Review. VIII (June 5, 1986), p. 20.

Listener. Review. CXV (May 8, 1986), p. 25.

New Statesman. Review. CXI (May 9, 1986), p. 27.

The Observer (London). Review. May 11, 1986, p. 24.

The Spectator. Review. CCLVI (May 10, 1986), p. 36.

The Times Literary Supplement. Review. May 9, 1986, p. 498.