The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As happens frequently in MacLennan’s fiction, the characters take on symbolic roles. Neil’s function as Odysseus is underscored at the end of the novel when he says to Penny: “Wise Penelope! That’s what Odysseus said to his wife when he got home. I don’t think he ever told her he loved her. He probably knew that the words would sound too small.” This is not the only classical parallel. Neil is like those heroes who are sent off by a father or an uncle on a dangerous mission likely to cause death. Miraculously, the hero escapes and, like Perseus with the Gorgon’s head, returns to confound the tyrannical elder. In this case, fate forestalls the hero. The crisis following the explosion causes Neil to shake off the last effects of his wound and shellshock. He loses interest in destroying Colonel Wain’s reputation and does not even trouble to get from the mortally injured Alex Mackenzie the affidavit that would clear his name. Angus Murray does this for him.

The heroine, Penny Wain, is a woman whose life is changed by the war as much as is Neil’s. Although destructive and disruptive, the war does give Penny a chance to use her talents to become a naval architect. She achieves the distinction of having her design for a submarine chaser accepted by the British Admiralty.

Angus Murray acts as the confidant to the other characters and as a link between them. The belief that Penny might marry him cures for a time his melancholia and alcoholism, which had been caused in part by the early death of his first wife as well as by the...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Neil Macrae

Neil Macrae, the twenty-eight-year-old orphaned nephew of Geoffrey Wain and unknowing father of his cousin Penelope Wain’s daughter Jean. At the French Front, Geoffrey Wain, commander of Neil’s regiment, had been preparing to court-martial his nephew for failing to carry out an impossible order when shelling had occurred. Wounded and temporarily amnesiac, Neil was mistakenly identified as a British private. Using his false identity, Neil has returned to Halifax to clear his own name. Still in poor health, Neil does not at first show his strength of character. This sometimes impulsive son of Jamsie Wain, rebellious daughter of the British loyalist Wain family, and John Macrae, a respected Cape Breton craftsman, embodies the best of a new breed of Canadians forged out of World War I and freed of colonialist dependence on England. An M.I.T.-trained engineer who excels in the new field of submarine design, Neil now knows exactly what he seeks. During the eight days that include the horrendous, historic Halifax explosion, this modern Odysseus is freed of Geoffrey Wain, reunited with Penelope, and aided by his true friends in clearing his name. He finds a focus for his restless energy in the monumental rescue work following the explosion. the novel’s conclusion finds the uncompromising Neil facing a bright future.

Penelope (Penny) Wain

Penelope (Penny) Wain, Geoffrey Wain’s twenty-nine-year-old daughter, a woman of strong character and great ability with a deceptively fragile appearance. A reserved woman, Penny suffers quietly the loss of Neil and her false relationship with her daughter Jean, adopted for propriety’s sake by her uncle and aunt. Penny sustains herself with her successful career as a talented ship designer; she also provides her...

(The entire section is 740 words.)