Characters Discussed


John, the narrator, a laconic fifty-year-old American private detective of French Canadian origin who has been hired to investigate the death of an American named Adams. An unreflective man of action, almost a machine, he seldom becomes nervous or frightened. As an astronaut, he learned how to wait patiently for those moments when quick and decisive action was required, yet he can make quite impulsive decisions, as when he enlisted in the commandos at the age of eighteen and participated in the invasion of Normandy as a glider infantryman. Dismissed from the Mars program because of allergies to grass and dust, he has been hired to investigate the death of a fellow American who was one of twelve victims of the same mysterious cause of death in Naples.


Annabella, a young French girl whom John heroically saves from being killed by a Japanese terrorist’s bomb in the Rome airport. Although newspaper accounts of this event describe her as a teenager, she is in fact younger than that. At first, she is apprehensive about John, fearing that he may be part of the terrorist’s plot, but she becomes friendly with her protector when he takes her back to her parents.

Dr. Philippe Barth

Dr. Philippe Barth, a distinguished French computer scientist who serves as a consultant to the Sûreté. Because he has been programming a computer to solve problems in which the amount of data...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

The Characters

John—it is the only name given to the narrator—is the sole character in the novel who is developed at any length. John is a man of action, a World War II veteran who entered the astronaut program but was reduced to backup status and finally dismissed from the Mars mission because of his allergies to grass and dust. Now, middle-aged, his only appropriate employment is as a private detective working for the executor of the Adams will.

His narration of the story is rather laconic and offhand, in the manner of the private detectives of the traditional American hard-boiled novel which, ironically, is Stanisaw Lem’s model. As a soldier, astronaut, and detective, John has learned to wait patiently for those moments when quick, decisive, unreflective action is required; in a sense, he is himself a kind of machine. (At one point he says that the only time he was excited during his simulation of Adams’ experience in Naples and Rome was when he was frightened.) Furthermore, he does not undergo any transformation as a character. At the end of the story, he is the same person he was at the beginning, except that he now knows the answer to the puzzle.

Yet Lem’s decision to employ such a character is appropriate, because he is dealing with a scientific puzzle which requires for its solution the kind of objectivity one expects from a technician, even in his account of the temporary psychedelic derangement which is the result of a remarkable chemical coincidence.

Barth, his colleagues, Annabella, and the optician are not characterized sufficiently to enable the reader to see them as fully rounded characters. That, however, must not be considered a flaw in the novel, because Lem’s interest is less in the development of characters than in the explication of a scientific puzzle for the sake of its philosophical implications.


The only character central to the investigation and thus to the novel is the protagonist. The Chain of Chance purports to be a book...

(The entire section is 969 words.)