The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The model of the Kennedy character is only thinly disguised. While he does not have brothers, The Senator is otherwise easy to recognize: Described as separated from his wife of thirty years, he is a man with a “diminutive first name” and “an old-style liberal Democrat out of the 1960s, a Great Society man with a stubborn and zealous dedication to social reform” who “had been among the three leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.”

The center of the novel, however, is less the powerful senator and contemporary political history than Kelly Kelleher, a naïve young woman who is the innocent but willing victim of The Senator’s political and sexual power. Ironically, Kelly wrote her senior honors thesis at Brown on The Senator, and her collegiate idealism still thrives: She not only writes articles now on such issues as capital punishment for the liberal Citizens’ Inquiry but she also teaches two nights a week in a literacy program in inner-city Boston. Kelly is a young woman with a history of acne but not much else; she will not talk about her one lover (“G--”), and she has regularly starved herself as self-punishment for her imagined failures. The child of a rich suburban New York City family, she ends up at the bottom of a creek with a fractured skull and broken kneecap, trapped in a slowly sinking car and abandoned by the man to whom she has been so powerfully drawn. The real tragedy in Black Water is hers. She is another in a long string of familiar Oates characters: single women who lack confidence in themselves and security in their sexuality and who are thus easy prey for more powerful males. Kelly even thinks that “the black water was her fault.” Oates implies that one source of Kelly’s problem is the Kelleher family in Westchester, which gave her all the material things she needed, but few of the emotional. A clue in the novel is the refrain, “You know you’re somebody’s little girl don’t you?” The implication is that the adult woman has never been able to grow satisfactorily beyond that unhealthy childhood line.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Kelly Kelleher

Kelly Kelleher, a bright, young, idealistic political campaign worker. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in American studies. Born Elizabeth Anne Kelleher to conventional parents, her nickname points to a second identity. There are aspects of her identity that her well-meaning but conservative parents do not see. Born with a wandering eye that has been corrected, Kelly nevertheless has a side of her that wanders from her parents’ straight and narrow path. She becomes active in liberal causes sponsored by the Democratic Party and works on the campaign of presidential candidate George Dukakis. During this campaign, she demonstrates a tendency to get caught up in the romance of things and to not see warning signs of failure or trouble. She is so crushed by the defeat of Dukakis that she suffers a breakdown, a crisis of identity that makes her lose her bearings. Although she has an underlying vulnerability—an inability to be clear about herself that lurks under the surface of her upbeat, optimistic, persona—Kelly rebounds. Although a recent love affair has foundered, Kelly is thrilled when she learns that she and her favorite politician both will be attending a Fourth of July picnic at a friend’s home on a small island in Maine. This prestigious senator was the subject of her college senior thesis, and her excitement at the prospect of meeting her hero is ratified by a horoscope she reads with her friends the night before the party. It counsels her to “go for it,” to give vent to her wishes and desires, and suggests that she has been cautious for too long. This Scorpio horoscope validates Kelly’s image of herself as a modern American girl, entitled to a strong sense of personal agency and to self-fulfillment. The sense of...

(The entire section is 741 words.)