The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Barracks Thief is radically split in its character focus. On one hand, it is Philip’s novel, for it both begins and ends with his situation, and much of it is told from his point of view. On the other hand, Lewis is the barracks thief of the title, and it is his inner conflict about his image as a man that constitutes the central conflict of the novel. Because both Philip and Lewis seem more acted upon than acting, however, the reader does not learn much about either of them. Because the novel has something to do with Philip’s experience of male bonding and betrayal, his personality frames the novel. The story begins with Philip’s father breaking up the family and his brother running away, and it ends with Philip becoming a “good man”—a role he both accepts and chafes against.

Lewis is a more “interesting” character, although he seems almost incapable of complex thought. His motivations are central to the novel: He is the one who refuses to leave his post at the ammunition dump (an episode that establishes the theme of male bonding in the novel), and he is the barracks thief of the title (which destroys that bonding). On the one hand, Lewis is a simple stereotype, a dumb redneck who boasts and tries to prove himself as a man but who only ends up looking foolish and ineffectual. On the other hand, there is something centrally compelling about his problematical experiences with his comrades at the ammunition dump, with the teacher who rubs lotion on his swollen hand, and with the prostitute whom he says he loves. He cannot easily be dismissed as either simply stupid or simply mentally disturbed, for he seems to embody some of the problems surrounding the novel’s central theme—men trying to be men in a world governed by stereotyped masculine roles.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Lewis, a young army recruit from Lawton, Kentucky, who is training as part of the Eighty-second Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. He is one of three new soldiers chosen to guard an ammunition dump in a woods outside the fort on the Fourth of July. the soldiers are instructed by the duty officer to shoot any nonmilitary personnel who come near the dump. When the local sheriff and a civilian try to convince them to leave the dump because they are in danger from a nearby forest fire, the three soldiers, led by Lewis, dutifully chase them off at gunpoint. the act forges a bond of friendship among the three new recruits, but Lewis’ macho display masks his personal insecurities. Lewis is homesick and lonely. His attempts to fit in with his fellow soldiers through brash and compulsive talk alienates those around him. He brags incessantly about his sexual prowess but is mortified when a sergeant calls him “Tinkerbell” because he cannot complete a rugged training maneuver. One night, a civilian teacher at the post tends to Lewis’ wounded hand, and Lewis is disturbed by the pleasure he feels from close physical contact with the man. He decides to prove his masculinity to himself by picking up a prostitute in a local bar, but the woman humiliates him when she finds out that he does not have enough money. Lewis vows to return with the appropriate sum and the next day steals the wallet of a soldier in his barracks. the ease with which he commits the theft magnifies his contempt for his barracks mates, and he enjoys the feeling of power over them that the theft gives him. Lewis’ need to steal becomes a psychologically complex compulsion. He is nearly caught taking the wallet of a soldier in the shower room and eludes capture only by punching the anonymous victim in the face. When he discovers that the man he punched was Hubbard, one of the two soldiers with whom he guarded the ammunition dump, he is struck with shame. He plans to turn over a new leaf but...

(The entire section is 808 words.)