The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Each of the characters seems specially chosen to exemplify many of the attitudes and interests—both common and bizarre—of the nineteenth century.

Deirdre, as has been seen, illustrates the fascination of the time with the occult, but the century had an equal passion for the stage. This love is shown through Malvinia, who runs away as a girl to join a troupe of actors. She becomes a star, attracts her leading man, and, in the first turning point of her life, discovers a horrible secret: She likes sex. Malvinia, like many people of the nineteenth century, thinks that women are too fine and high-minded to possess sexual feelings. Thus she is caught in the ironic situation in which she delights in her sexuality while despising herself for having zest for what she calls “the beast.” Although she regards her lustiness as unwomanly, she is unable, as she puts it, to “control herself.” Only later, when she reforms and marries a clergyman, is she freed from her “burden.” She then becomes the kind of obedient and pure wife celebrated in nineteenth century domestic literature.

Her sister Octavia, on the other hand, from her earliest age wants only to be a wife and mother and through her story shows the century’s commitment to a stern duty and an almost equally stern religion. The taboos of the time prevent frank instruction in reproduction, and she searches unsuccessfully for the facts of life in books. Even her mother is worse than...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Quincy Zinn

John Quincy Zinn, a gentleman inventor, fifty-two years old in 1879. John is tall, wide-shouldered, and handsome despite the dagger-shaped birthmark on his left temple. He is the son of a dishonest peddler whom, as a child, he saw tarred, feathered, and burned. John was adopted by a farm family, became a radical schoolmaster influenced by transcendentalism, and finally, after being lionized by Philadelphia society, married into the wealthy Kiddemaster family, which supports his experimental laboratory and large family. Convinced of the inevitability of progress, John believes that inventions will bring the perfectibility of humankind. At his death, he is engaged, under government patronage, in devising weapons of destruction, including the basis of nuclear weaponry. Despite the radicalism of his early years, he regards Deirdre, Constance Philippa, and Samantha as dead when they run away to live their own lives in violation of the conventions of the Kiddemaster class.

Prudence Kiddemaster Zinn

Prudence Kiddemaster Zinn, John’s wife, who is stout, stern, matronly, and conventional. She once was the highly independent headmistress of a girls’ school. Renouncing her independence to pursue John, her spirit is broken by a series of pregnancies, sometimes difficult labors, miscarriages, and occasional deaths. In old age, however, she leaves John to return to militant feminist causes.

Deirdre Louisa Bonner Zinn

Deirdre Louisa Bonner Zinn, an adopted Zinn daughter. She is sixteen years old in 1879, when she is abducted in a mysterious black balloon. Deirdre is dark-haired, pale, and small; she has a marked widow’s peak and piercing silvery-gray eyes. She is disliked by the Zinn sisters and unhappy in her adopted home. Spiritual manifestations have plagued her since childhood. After her abduction, she reappears as Deirdre of the Shadows, a distinguished and successful trance medium. When she is investigated by the Society of Psychical...

(The entire section is 829 words.)