The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The narrator is the only character that the author fully develops; the other characters seem to exist only to enhance his personality. He is essentially weak, vacillating, and ambivalent. His ambivalence is evident in the contradictions between his principles and his practices. These contradictions are apparent in his attitudes about race, about relationships, both casual and intimate, and about music. For example, during his school days, although he is callously reminded by his white teacher that he is black, and although he is rejected by his white classmates, he admittedly has “strong aversion” to being classed with the black children. Looking in the mirror at the “ivory whiteness” of his skin, he laments the fact that he could possibly be considered a “nigger.” Also, while playing in the club in New York, he is as disturbed at seeing a rich white widow in the presence of a black male companion as any white man of the time would be.

This ambivalence extends also to the narrator’s personal relationships. He takes pride in the achievements of African Americans, and he expresses great admiration for the photographs of “every coloured man in America who had ’done anything’” that adorn the walls of the club where he works. He has few black friends, however, and those that he does have, in both the North and South, are of the upper classes. He is revolted by the appearance and actions of all African Americans except those he calls...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, a musician and composer who is not named in the novel. The son of a mulatto woman and a rich white father, the narrator moves from Georgia to Connecticut at an early age. He is extremely light-skinned, and the truth of his race is kept from him; his discovery that he is black is a traumatic one. Having been reared by his mother, he develops into an extremely sensitive adult. He is well read, has good manners, and exhibits considerable culture. He is, however, also naïve and somewhat cowardly. The latter trait is most clearly seen when, after witnessing the lynching and burning of another black man in the rural South, the narrator elects to pass for white. Even after he becomes moderately successful and comfortable, he sometimes regrets his decision to leave the black race but is much too afraid to live as a black man, based on the lynching experience.

The narrator’s mother

The narrator’s mother, a seamstress, a mulatto former servant who has a child by her white employer. He arranges for her and the child to move to Connecticut. She is well read and possesses considerable knowledge of black life and history, which she passes on to her son. She also barters her services as a seamstress to secure tutors and music teachers for him. She is the major force in his life. She dies shortly after his graduation from high school.


Shiny, a boyhood friend of the...

(The entire section is 512 words.)