The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Leonard Cohen’s novel is a study of four characters, the “beautiful losers.” Their questionable beauty and their status as losers provide the substance of the novel. In their intensive quests for physical and spiritual beauty, they are representative of all human aspiration.

It is the narrator’s tortured mind, spirit, and...

(The entire section contains 468 words.)

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  • Characters
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Leonard Cohen’s novel is a study of four characters, the “beautiful losers.” Their questionable beauty and their status as losers provide the substance of the novel. In their intensive quests for physical and spiritual beauty, they are representative of all human aspiration.

It is the narrator’s tortured mind, spirit, and body that are revealed in the unraveling and the raveling of the plot in book 1. While first-person narrative is by its nature limited, it is the limitations themselves that are the subject of the narrative. The narrator is all too aware of his shortcomings, and book 2 confirms and adds to the idea of these. He is physically and intellectually inhibited: He is constipated, and, though he does not know it, he has been in all ways manipulated by his closest friend. His spiritual longings and his ability to ejaculate, however, are unlimited. (He, literally, and his pages, figuratively, are covered in semen.)

The narrator’s anonymity and his refusal to name the tribe he studies in order to save them the humiliation of association with him are evidence of the narrator’s self-deprecation. While his frequent discussions of the condition of his bowels is in keeping with his self-deprecatory manner, his constant discussion of his sexuality remains more ambiguous.

Longing is the essence of the narrator’s being. He longs for physical and spiritual union with F., his friend and physical mate from boyhood. He longs for physical and spiritual union with Edith and with the sainted Catherine. Blaming his scholarship for the death of his wife, the narrator blames himself as well for not having the courage of his convictions, as F. had in sacrificing himself for his beliefs. F.’s letter shows that, in fact, the narrator had been the more truly dedicated of the two. While F. created his physical self in the image of an Adonis advertised in the pages of a comic book and Edith as his physical counterpart, and while he directed the narrator’s studies, he shows himself to believe himself the spiritual inferior of the narrator. The epilogue, in keeping with the dark tone of the novel, shows the two men as equals in look and in action—the only difference being that one old man is missing a thumb.

The female characters are presented as physically flawed: Edith had not always been beautiful, and in her final appearance she had been damaged beyond recognition by an elevator; Catherine Tekakwitha had smallpox as a child and was wasted and tortured to death by her wish to deny the flesh in the elevation of her spirit. Spiritually, Edith’s longings are satisfied by her union with the narrator and with F. and by drugs; Catherine’s are consecrated in her sanctification by the Catholic Church and by the narrator.

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