The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Told from a third-person, limited point of view, the novel shifts between internal and external views of the characters and offers internal views of several main characters: Rufus, Vivaldo, Cass, Eric, and Yves. Baldwin’s choice to avoid extended internal views of Richard and Ida may seem puzzling, but in both cases, Baldwin is able to focus attention and sympathy on their opposites, Cass and Vivaldo. Concealing Richard’s and Ida’s thoughts makes it likely that readers will share the mistakes and self-deceptions of Cass and Vivaldo about their lovers, heightening the effects of their eventual discoveries. Because Cass’s problems parallel Ida’s, and Vivaldo’s parallel Richard’s, readers can appreciate the dramatic irony of Cass and Vivaldo’s limited perspectives.

Richard has been hiding his fears about Cass’s withdrawal of respect and affection from him. He knows that she cannot admire his popular detective novel, and he fears that she no longer loves him. Ida has been hiding the mercenary and vengeful motives that led her to have affairs with white men, including Vivaldo and Ellis. Baldwin shows Cass reading Richard’s withdrawal as a turning away from her toward the shallow and false world of a celebrity author. Vivaldo’s motives for ignoring his suspicions about Ida’s infidelity prove very complicated. He says that he fears Ellis will take advantage of her with promises of career advancement. He also fears—rightly—that she will willingly trade sexual favors for advancement when it suits her....

(The entire section is 627 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rufus Scott

Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer. Handsome, talented, and black, Rufus is the pivotal character in the novel, although he commits suicide at the end of the first chapter. He meets his girlfriend, Leona, a white woman from the South, while playing a gig. Their unstable relationship is torn apart by racial and other tensions between them. He beats her until his friend, Vivaldo Moore, intercedes. Rufus’ ensuing depression results in his suicide: He walks out onto the George Washington Bridge and jumps. Rufus’ struggle initiates the questions the novel explores, concerning the pain of sexual and racial identity.


Leona, Rufus’ lover. A divorcée who lost the custody of her son, she has moved north to start a new life. Rejected and beaten by Rufus, she has a breakdown and is committed to Bellevue until she is released in the custody of her brother, who takes her back south.

Vivaldo Moore

Vivaldo Moore, an aspiring writer. He is an Italian American and Rufus’ closest friend; he is haunted by the thought that he could have been a closer, more sensitive friend to Rufus. He falls in love with Ida Scott, Rufus’ younger sister, and she eventually moves in with him. When she begins an affair with Steve Ellis, a television producer, he tries to ignore it but eventually takes some solace in a one-night affair with Eric Jones, a white Southern man with whom Rufus once had a brief, stormy affair. At the end of the novel, Ida and Vivaldo commit themselves emotionally to each other, but it is not clear that they can overcome the racial and emotional forces that have been tearing them apart.

Ida Scott

Ida Scott, Rufus’ very attractive younger sister, an aspiring singer. When Rufus dies, Ida promises herself never to let anyone take advantage of her emotionally the way she thinks...

(The entire section is 774 words.)