The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Characterization is achieved in Bless the Beasts and Children by several means. Flashbacks, set in italics, are relevant to one boy at a time, giving each boy’s history and providing a picture of a sick psyche brought on by neglect of basic human needs. In each case, the boys are castoffs, children of parents too busy with their own affairs to really care about the well-being of their own sons. Stephen and Billy Lally, for example, are shown in one flashback competing for the affection of their parents, who bribe each of the boys with a gift and then fly off to winter in Morocco. Another example shows Laurence Teft III trying to get the attention of his parents by stealing money from his mother and driving off in his father’s big car, only to collide with two other cars. Instead of speaking to his son, the father locks his cars away, and Teft simply steals a neighbor’s car.

The author also illustrates the boys’ characteristic behavior in interactions with others, as when Cotton decides that, since he is the oldest and most normal of the group, he needs to take control. Cotton thus hunts about in his footlocker and finds some army tags that jingle when he puts them on; he pulls out an electric razor and runs it over his face, though he has no need to shave; and, finally, he pulls out four tiny bottles of whiskey, takes a drink, and then lights a cigar—actions enough to mark him as the leader he sets out to be.

Lastly, Swarthout sometimes delineates his characters through direct exposition by the commenting narrator or by entry into the mind of a character or an animal. The careful identification of the boys with the animals helps to cast the boys’ mission in a heroic mode and gives the plight of the animals considerable urgency, an urgency reflected in the death of Cotton at the end of the novel.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Cotton

John Cotton, the fifteen-year-old leader of a misfit group of campers called the Bedwetters. The son of a selfish and disinterested mother and numerous stepfathers, Cotton has a rage against the world so deep as to induce catatonia during periods of stress. As misfit children are thrown out of other cabins, Cotton takes them in. Although not a natural leader, he seizes authority, bullying and cajoling the boys into working together. In an abortive raid to capture the trophy of another cabin, Cotton joins the disorganized Bedwetters. His humiliation at their failure reduces him to tears. Ruthlessly, he begins his crusade to save these rejects from society. Setting the horses free from their corral as a ruse to draw away the other campers, Cotton and his Bedwetters capture all the camp trophies. Teft’s careful shooting of the trophies, placing a bullet in each, frightens the other campers so badly that Cotton’s mission is accomplished: The Bedwetters are given fearful respect. Wheaties, the boys’ counselor, insists on stopping at the Roscoe Ranch Buffalo Preserve near Flagstaff to see a buffalo shoot, and the boys are sickened at the slaughter. Cotton rallies them to bring back Lally 2, who has gone to free the buffalo. Pushing and prodding, Cotton leads the others in a final act of redemption, freeing the penned buffalo. Defiant to the end, he dies while stampeding the herd.

Gerald Goodenow

Gerald Goodenow, a sissy and a crybaby who still wets the bed at the...

(The entire section is 624 words.)