Captain Abraham Blackman is, simultaneously, a complex yet allegorical figure. He serves as narrator, protagonist, commentator, observer, and teacher throughout the novel. As he marches from battle to battle, Blackman wrestles with the problems of race relations throughout the ages. He is a man who confronts his fears and anger much as he confronts his duties: head-on. He is tormented through two hundred years of dreams by his antagonist, Major Whittman. He recognizes in the light-haired, light-eyed Whittman the racist and imperialist military mind-set. In two time periods (the War of 1812 and the Plains Wars), Blackman must serve under light-haired men of the same ilk as Whittman: Andrew Jackson and General George Custer, both of whose inhumanity to the indigenous peoples was legendary.
Like the biblical Abraham, Blackman becomes the leader of an oppressed people, thus becoming the new Abraham. Through Blackman’s teaching, young African Americans such as Luther Woodcock will subvert the Whittmans, and Jews such as Robert Doctorow will aid the black revolutionary movement. The younger soldiers who have learned from Blackman are not the passive victims of the past, as the apocalyptic ending bears out.
On the other hand, Blackman’s nemesis, the narrow-minded, petty Major Whittman, is purely allegorical. He is not Walt Whitman, who as a poet sought to encompass all humanity, but instead the opposite of what the poet represented. Ishmael Whittman is primarily a man consumed by hate, devoid of any humanity. His frosty appearance mirrors the iciness of his soul. Other characters in Blackman’s Vietnam experience appear sporadically in his dreams. Only Whittman appears in every era, in every battle. He first appears in the American Revolution as an aide to General Washington. By the time Whittman appears in the Korean War dream, Blackman is able to beat him in a fight. In reality, Whittman takes great delight in Blackman’s extensive injuries, hoping that he will die. Blackman has the last word, since he, the new Abraham, has marshaled his people to revolt. Eventually, Whittman is annihilated, undermined by his own racial prejudice.
The most intriguing character in the novel is Mimosa Rogers, a prototypical African American woman. As her name suggests—the mimosa plant folds its leaves for protection when it is touched—Mimosa is a touch-me-not, a woman who throughout the centuries has ably defended herself. She, like Blackman, is larger than life, described in Amazonian terms. With each successive dream, she becomes larger and stronger. In the first dream in which she appears, the Civil War sequence, Mimosa is a slave girl who has been raped by white men. Blackman ultimately avenges her by raping a white woman while her bound husband is forced to watch. In reality, she works in the foreign office in Saigon, dispelling the notion that African American women were only capable of being domestics. She is Blackman’s partner, exhorting him to live after he is injured and to fight racism.
The author is capable of supplying the odd detail that provides fully rounded characters—the manner in which Johnny Griot (in Blackman’s Vietnam squad) carries his M-60 like a film soldier, the priapic talk and antics of Big Dick (a soldier in Blackman’s segregated World War II barracks), or the way in which Woodcock wears the biggest afro in the company, possibly to compensate for his light skin. Yet, as with his preceding novels, Williams’s main purposes in characterization are didactic and doctrinal: Characters symbolize or are spokespersons for (or both) social positions or points of view in a society that is, overall, racist. Characters are sympathetic toward the black cause, hostile, or somewhere in between. This symbolic or allegorical aspect produces a flattening effect even on the most fully realized and alive character in the book, the hero. For though animating details such as his shoe size (twelve) and preference in wine (Meursault)...
(The entire section is 1,324 words.)