Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478
Ben Butley, a lecturer in English literature at London University. He is a childish, irresponsible, disorganized cynic who smokes constantly and drinks heavily. Ben frequently quotes Beatrix Potter and T. S. Eliot and ridicules others with his abrasive wit. Separated from his wife, Anne, he lives with his office mate, Joey Keyston, with whom he also lived before his marriage. Ben tells students that he cannot see them because of his administrative burden, but he also declines to speak with his department chairman, claiming to be too busy with tutorials. After a visit by Anne, who reveals that she is going to marry someone else, he learns that Joey also is leaving him. Frustrated at losing both wife and friend, Ben taunts Joey’s lover, Reg Nuttall, into striking him.
Joseph (Joey) Keyston
Joseph (Joey) Keyston, Ben’s colleague and roommate, who began his relationship with Ben as his student. He is Ben’s opposite: neat, organized, ambitious, and timid. Joey, who is working on an edition of Robert Herrick’s poetry, is concerned that Ben’s recklessness will interfere with his promotion in the English department. He is too frightened of his friend to tell Ben that he is moving in with Reg. Despite himself, he gets caught up in Ben’s cynical games, inventing a stereotyped Yorkshire working-class background for Reg. Joey accuses his mentor of attempting to make a mess of his life just as Ben has done for Anne, charging him with spreading futility.
Reg Nuttall, a London publisher. He invites Ben’s ridicule by being knowledgeable about food, proud of his time in the National Service, enthusiastic about the Leeds football club, and sensitive about his homosexuality. In addition to taking Joey, Reg infuriates Ben by agreeing to publish a novel by Ben’s rival, Tom Weatherley.
Edna Shaft, an English literature professor in her late forties. She is upset that Ben has encouraged a student, Gardner, to complain to the head of the department about her dull teaching. She irritates Ben by inducing Joey to move into an office near hers and by finally completing the book on Lord Byron on which she has been working for twenty years.
Anne Butley, Ben’s estranged wife and mother of their daughter, Marina. Jealous and contemptuous of Joey, she comes to Ben’s office to ask for a divorce and to reveal that she plans to marry Tom, whom Ben considers to be the most boring man in London.
Carol Heasman, a student. She forces Ben to listen to the essay she has written about William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and is humiliated by his sarcastic response.
Gardner, a slovenly student who wears a feathered hat and sandals. He wants to study Eliot under Ben but is rejected as being uninteresting.
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