The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

Although not the title character, Jackson Bradley seems to be the protagonist of Catherine Carmier. He is certainly the most powerful active force in the novel, the character whose desires and actions disturb the static community in which the novel is set.

Jackson is defined in part by the...

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Although not the title character, Jackson Bradley seems to be the protagonist of Catherine Carmier. He is certainly the most powerful active force in the novel, the character whose desires and actions disturb the static community in which the novel is set.

Jackson is defined in part by the desires of other characters as those desires intersect with his. Charlotte’s desire, for example, is that Jackson will settle down and teach school. For Charlotte, Jackson represents the future—but the future, for Charlotte, means essentially a continuation of what has been. Because Charlotte is a sympathetic character, she can suggest the value of what Jackson is rejecting. For a seeker such as Jackson, however, Charlotte’s dream would be a surrender. Mary Louise’s desire is that Jackson will return her unselfish love (she clearly distinguishes between love and possession), but to Jackson, that too would mean surrendering the freedom his nature demands. Jackson also feels alienated from his old friend Brother, in part because Brother seems, to Jackson, to be disturbingly free of desire. In cutting himself off from his past, however, Jackson has not succeeded in liberating himself; he suffers from a sense of aimless drift.

Madame Bayonne does not play an active role in the novel. Strictly speaking, she makes nothing happen. Her function is to allow Jackson to articulate his feelings, and she acts as a kind of ironic chorus, commenting on the people, places, and events of the novel. She may also suggest, by her intellectual range and depth, that life in a rural community such as this one need not be quite so stultifying as Jackson supposes.

The threat Jackson represents to the stability of the community is intensified by the reawakening of his feelings for Catherine. Catherine is divided and indecisive. Lillian, who in many ways parallels Jackson, represents a threat from within the family to Catherine’s serenity. She cannot commit herself to Jackson, knowing that that would mean a final break with her father. The exact nature of Catherine’s love for her father is itself uncertain, but the fact that she seems to regard Jackson and her father as rivals suggests that that love may have in it more of the erotic than Catherine herself consciously realizes.

Raoul himself is a formidable figure. He probably killed Mark, Della’s son and the physical proof of her extramarital affair with a dark-skinned man. However, Della, who has long suppressed her spontaneous, outgoing nature for Raoul’s sake, wants above all to be acknowledged by him as his wife. The defeat Raoul suffers at the hands of Jackson is more the result of age than of any lack of resolve. However, the determination that becomes questionable as it warps his daughter’s life is also the quality that makes him the one man to hold out against the encroachment of the Cajuns, who have swallowed up almost all of what used to be black people’s land. Even Raoul’s final defeat is not without ambiguity. At the end of the novel, Catherine is with him. Jackson waits outside.

The Characters

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Jackson is a character cut adrift from his roots, seeking to find himself. His education has put his earlier life in a sophisticated perspective that distances him from his former friends, and he resists a sympathetic engagement in their community from fears of being dragged down into a miasma of despair. He plans to leave, to continue the search for self in a world that has already scarred him with some racial bitterness. Before leaving, however, he must confront two strong adversaries.

The first is Aunt Charlotte. She has spun a moral web from which Jefferson must free himself at the cost of seeming to be a selfish ingrate. She is his patroness, and although he loves her, he knows he must disappoint her. She is a simple, strong-willed woman with a deep, abiding faith, and it is her goodness and moral rectitude that make Jefferson feel like an apostate in his darker moments. She is also the first adversary in Jackson’s personal rite of passage.

The other iron-willed character is Raoul Carmier, Jackson’s rival for Catherine’s love and loyalty. He represents a very different sort of challenge. A proud, unyielding man, Raoul is also an imposing blocking figure. He dominates his world, made narrow by his hatred for whites and blacks alike. He treats his wife, Della, like a household servant, elevating Catherine, his favorite, to surrogate spouse. For her part, Catherine is drawn to Raoul’s strength, while he, from selfish designs, has cut her off from any sort of mature relationship with other men.

In some ways Raoul is admirable. He is a hard worker who, unlike most black sharecroppers, refuses to give up the struggle against the Cajuns who have slowly displaced the blacks on the plantation’s land. To survive against them, he must work long hours, plowing his fields with mules because he is too poor to afford motorized equipment. Yet there is also something ruthless and sinister about Raoul, and by the end of the novel, it is intimated that he had killed Mark, Della’s son, born from a brief extramarital liaison with a black man. Strangely, it is only when he reveals his guilt that Della is once more drawn to him.

Catherine’s relationship with her father hints of latent incest, but it is never expressed in overt behavior. Like her mother, she has had an amatory adventure with another man, a Creole farmer, who fathered her child, Nelson. The farmer, however, was run off by Raoul, and until her affair with Jackson, she has had no other man in her life except her father. Despite her enchanting good looks and strong passion, she is content to be her father’s companion. So imbued is she with loyalty to Raoul that her love for Jackson is accompanied by feelings of guilt, betrayal, and self-hatred. At the end, Jackson is simply unable to overcome these conflicting emotions and loses the enigmatic Catherine to Raoul.

Characters Discussed

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Jackson Bradley

Jackson Bradley, a searcher who measures people, places, and events by whether they will contribute to his search or impede it. Returning to Louisiana after completing his college education in California, he no longer feels at home in the rural community of his origins.

Catherine Carmier

Catherine Carmier, a woman divided between her need to fulfill herself as an individual and her powerful attachment to her family, especially to her father. Her relationship with her father has a troubling intensity; she is not sure that she could love any other man as much as she loves him.

Raoul Carmier

Raoul Carmier, a hard, determined man. His extremely light skin has created in him a sense of distance from his darker-skinned neighbors without creating any compensatory sense of closeness to white people. He lives in a kind of self-imposed isolation from the community and insists that his wife and daughter share it with him. His hardness is seen in a more positive light when he stands up to the Cajuns after almost everyone else has surrendered.

Charlotte

Charlotte, Jackson’s aunt, sees in him not only the young man she has helped to rear but also the main hope for the future of the community. Her emotional investment in him blinds her to his needs as a separate human being.

Della

Della, Raoul’s wife, emotionally estranged from her husband ever since the birth of her son Mark, whose dark skin revealed that Raoul could not be the father. Recognizing her husband’s obsession with Catherine, Della waits for her moment, when she can take her rightful place as Raoul’s true wife.

Madame Bayonne

Madame Bayonne, Jackson’s former schoolteacher, who has a freedom of mind that allows her to understand Jackson’s questing nature at the same time that she sees deeply into the powerful emotional entanglements of the local community. Her role is that of confidante to Jackson and of ironic and compassionate commentator on the action.

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