The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As a child growing up in rural New York, David Treadup reveals no special abilities, but when he is seventeen he falls severely ill with osteomyelitis, and with nothing to do but read books, he experiences a new insight into the life of the intellect. He is guided in this revelation by a perceptive, kind teacher, Maud Chase. Thus he is enthusiastic when a year later he is allowed to attend the Enderby Institute, where he studies under Absolom Carter, an inspired teacher who is ultimately the greatest influence on his life. As a role model of the “all-around thinker-athlete,” Carter is to Treadup a paradigm of what the naïve youth knows he wants to become. Carter tutors Treadup in Benjamin Franklin, Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch, treating him to a secular education that forms his thinking for good. So “the agnostic Carter’s instinct in giving David this extracurricular course in ethics was to bear fruit: Something skeptical, temporal, and sophisticated would stay with David all his life—and would give him difficulties as a missionary.”

Treadup’s conversion to Christianity comes when he is a twenty-five-year-old sophomore at Syracuse and provides him with great relief. He is freed from the terrible aimlessness that has bedeviled him and is given moral support in his struggle with carnal desire. His new purpose in life so enriches his spirit that his vague hypochondriacal complaints fade away. This spiritual confidence stays with him for forty years until, sick and despairing in a Japanese camp, he undergoes a “counterconversion” prefigured by a flare-up of his old osteomyelitis. He finds his loss of faith cathartic in an ironic way:I feel as if my hands and feet had been tied for a long time, and that the knots have suddenly been undone. This has been an eerie experience. I don’t think I am going to be quite so afraid any more. If there is a God, I must be a disappointment to him.

At this stage of his life, Treadup stands quite alone, severed from the allegiance that powered his efforts for four decades.


(The entire section is 843 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

David Treadup

David Treadup, a courageous, vital, and self-sacrificing man who devotes his life to Christian and humanitarian missions in the shifting, violent world of China during the first half of the twentieth century. Given to binges of vandalism in his youth, David pursues classical learning to escape the hard life of his parents’ farm. Following his religious conversion in 1903, his mind and body thrive. A handsome and large young man, he finds an outlet for his leadership skills and personal magnetism in the campus YMCA. At the age of twenty-seven, he embarks for China with a burning desire to evangelize that land through Gospel preaching. Soon disillusioned with the methods of old-fashioned missions, Treadup looks for another door into the Chinese mind. With his overpowering body and charisma, Treadup mesmerizes millions during his lectures on the gyroscope, airplane, and wireless, convincing listeners that the unseen is real and propelling them toward the modernization of China. He perseveres even during a bout with dysentery, delivering his lectures from a horizontal position onstage. During the early years of communist revolution in China, Treadup develops a hatred of violence. Suffering through years of diabolical Japanese occupation, Treadup experiences uncertainty, loneliness for his wife, deprivation, and a frustrating halt to his work. Confined to a prison camp, he becomes defeated and exhausted, a totally broken man. He ceases his prayers and loses touch with God, eventually coming to believe that there is no God. His unexpected release by the Japanese brings great sorrow to Treadup, for he must leave the work of a lifetime. When Treadup returns to China in a war rehabilitation position, he is arrested by the People’s Liberation Army. As their...

(The entire section is 730 words.)