Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620
Mary Tilford, a malicious fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. She attends a private girls’ school, where she bullies her fellow classmates, disobeys her teachers, and whines when she is not given her way. She has been brought up by an indulgent grandmother who has spoiled her. When two of her teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, try to discipline her, she retaliates by spreading the rumor that they are lesbians. Although the rumor is untrue, Mary sticks to her charge. Her shocked grandmother then removes her from the school and convinces the parents of the other children to do likewise, thus destroying the school and ruining the teachers’ lives.
Amelia Tilford, an influential and wealthy older woman. She dotes on Mary, her grandchild. She knows that Mary is petulant, and she initially scoffs at Mary’s attack on the teachers, but she is horrified when Mary whispers her charge that Martha and Karen are lesbians. Blinded by her outrage and unwilling to see through Mary’s manipulation of the facts, she succeeds not only in closing the school but also in ostracizing the two teachers. When Amelia finally learns of Mary’s deception, she abjectly asks for Karen’s forgiveness and searches for a way to rectify the harm she has caused the teachers.
Martha Dobie, an intense woman, twenty-eight years old, devoted to her friendship with Karen and rather jealous of Joe Cardin, Karen’s fiancé. When Martha learns of Mary’s charge against her, she goes with Karen to confront Amelia Tilford, who thinks that the two women have come merely to brazen things out. Martha and Karen take Amelia to court on charges of libel but lose their case when Martha’s Aunt Lily refuses to testify. Feeling guilty about the breakup of Karen and Joe, and suspecting that she has harbored sexual feelings for Karen, Martha kills herself at the end of the play.
Karen Wright, a twenty-eight-year-old teacher who has joined Martha in working hard to establish the Wright-Dobie boarding school. Although she is very close to Martha, she senses a strain between them when she becomes engaged to Joe Cardin, and it may be this strain that Mary is able to manufacture into a lie. Karen is more even-tempered than Martha, and although she grieves at the failure of their school, she clearly will survive, even though it appears that her fiancé has begun to doubt her and to wonder whether she indeed has a lesbian relationship with Martha.
Dr. Joe Cardin
Dr. Joe Cardin, Karen’s fiancé. He tries to expose Mary as a liar, and he intercedes on behalf of Martha and Karen with Amelia Tilford but proves unable to shake Mary’s story or to change Amelia’s mind. Although he tries to stick loyally by the two women, visiting them when everyone else has shunned them, he eventually succumbs to doubts about the relationship between Martha and Karen and reluctantly accepts Karen’s suggestion that they should not marry.
Lily Mortar, Martha’s aunt and a teacher at the school. She is proud of her career in the theater and relates to students her experiences on the stage. She is highly critical of Martha and points out that her niece is jealous of Karen and Joe. Her loose talk inadvertently helps Mary in concocting her charges against the teachers. During the trial, when Karen and Martha are trying to establish their innocence, Lily remains out of town and does not answer their pleas for help. She returns when it is too late, thinking only of herself and apparently oblivious to the grave injury she has done to the lives of Karen and Martha.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1889
A no-nonsense, middle-aged maid in the employ of Amelia Tilford. She is stem and straight-laced with Mary, who calls her "stupid." although Agatha clearly sees through Mary's deceptions. Agatha's attempts to make the child into a "lady" are frustrated by Mrs. Tilford, who is deaf to the maid's common-sense observations. Agatha also attempts to support Martha and Karen in their efforts to convince Mrs. Tilford that Mary concocted her story to destroy the young teachers.
See Lily Mortar
One of the girls at Karen and Martha's school, she plays a limited role. It is her bracelet that classmate Rosalie Wells "borrows," an act which allows Mary to blackmail Rosalie into confirming Mary's lies about Karen and Martha. Helen is one of the first to be pulled out of the school when Mrs. Tilford begins spreading the fiction that Karen and Martha are lesbian lovers.
Dr. Joseph Cardin
Cardin, about thirty-five, is a relaxed and amiable doctor and Karen Wright's fiancé. His casual dress reflects his warm, easy-going nature. He is also gracious and humorous and seems ideally suited to Karen. Like her, he recognizes that his cousin, Mary Tilford, is a spoiled but troubled child, which makes him a dangerous adversary for Mary because he has influence with her grandmother. However, when Mary poisons Mrs. Tilford's mind with her accusations against Karen and Martha, Mary is able to frustrate all his efforts to convince the old lady that her precious grandchild fabricated her story from pure spite.
Although Dr. Joe stands by Karen and Martha during the slander trial, he, too, finally falls victim to Mary's vindictive lies. After the trial, he is troubled by niggling doubts about the relationship of Karen and Martha. Although he sells his practice and makes plans to marry Karen and take her and Martha to Europe, his uncertainty finally causes him to accept Karen's suggestion that they break off their engagement. It is that act that prompts Martha's confessions about her real feelings and her resulting suicide. In the aftermath of Martha's death, there appears no real hope that Cardin and Karen can marry.
Catherine is one of the students at the Wright-Dobie School. She appears only in the first scene, where she attempts to help Lois prepare for a Latin test. The Latin lesson contributes to the chaotic lack of discipline in Mortar's classroom, revealing Lily's incompetence as a teacher.
Karen Wright's friend and co-owner of their school, Martha is about the same age, twenty-eight. She is described as "nervous" and "high strung" and is certainly far less composed and self-assured than her friend. It quickly becomes obvious that she greatly depends on Karen's emotional stability and good sense to provide her with the confidence needed to make a go of their school. She is thus somewhat jealous of Dr. Cardin, who also places demands on Karen. On the surface, Martha seems pleased that Karen and Joe plan to marry and supports them, but her inner fears of an inevitable estrangement from Karen leads to a growing tension in the play.
Once Mary Tilford poisons her grandmother's mind against Martha and Karen, Martha must confront the possibility that her jealousy springs from a suppressed sexual longing for her friend. Although she joins Karen in the libel suit against Mrs. Tilford, she is finally unable to cope with her complex feelings, which include a strong sense of responsibility for Karen's breakup with Joe. After confessing that her love for Karen has included physical desire, she takes her own life.
Another of Karen and Martha's students, she receives Lain tutoring from Catherine at the play's opening, conjugating Latin in hectic counterpoint to Peggy Roger's reading of Portia's "quality of mercy'' speech from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Lily Mortar's languid criticism. Like Catherine, she plays no significant role in the rest of the drama.
The unnamed grocery boy makes a very brief appearance in the last scene, carrying a box of groceries into the school's living room. He is almost mute, but his puerile gawking and giggling are indicative of the damage done to the reputations of Karen and Martha as a result of Mary's accusations.
See Dr. Joseph Cardin
Hellman describes Lily Mortar as "a plump, florid woman of forty-five.'' She is Martha Dobie's aunt and teaches at the Wright-Dobie School. A self-centered woman, she lives in romanticized delusions of her past triumphs as an actress. She is also vain and very susceptible to flattery, an easy patsy for a conniving student like Mary Tilford. She refuses to grow old gracefully, dying her hair and dressing too fancifully for her reduced circumstances (and expanded waistline). She is also a thorn in the side of Karen and Martha, who find her pretensions and meddling very annoying. They finally are able to finance her trip to Europe but, for purely selfish and petty reasons, when she is needed home to support them in their civil suit against Mrs. Tilford, she fails to return until it is too late. Martha finally confesses to Lily that she has always hated her, but Lily seems impervious to her niece's feelings. At the end of the play, her concern for her own welfare seems to outweigh her self-righteous grief over Martha's death.
One of the girls at the Wright-Dobie School, Evelyn is first encountered in the opening scene, in which she mangles Rosalie Wells's hair with a pair of scissors. Evelyn, who lisps, is relatively quiet and timid. With Peggy Rogers, she overhears the conversation between Martha Dobie and Lily Mortar; the overheard conversation becomes the keystone in the malicious arch of lies that Mary Tilford constructs. Like Peggy, Evelyn is a victim of Mary's intimidation, which, at the end of the first act, turns to physical abuse. When Mary attempts to extort money from Peggy, Evelyn tries to interfere and is slapped in the face for her efforts. She is one of the first children withdrawn from the school after Mrs. Tilford spreads Mary's slanderous accusations.
A student at the Wright-Dobie School, Peggy, like Evelyn Munn, is easily intimidated by Mary Tilford. She appears in the opening scene, where, under Lily Mortar's tutelage, she tries to read Portia's famous speech on the quality of mercy. Unimaginative, she shows little interest in Shakespeare. Her grandest aspiration is to marry a lighthouse keeper.
Peggy is with Evelyn when they overhear the fateful conversation between Martha Dobie and her aunt. Thereafter the pair confide in Mary, who immediately puts her malicious scheme into operation by extorting money from Peggy, who was saving it for a bicycle
Mrs. Amelia Tilford
A wealthy widow, Mrs. Tilford is a large, dignified woman in her sixties. She has been an influential supporter of the Wright-Dobie School, where her granddaughter, Mary, is enrolled. Although she is a fair and generous person, she lacks good judgment when it comes to matters concerning her granddaughter. She recognizes that Mary is both spoiled and manipulative, but she dotes on the child and is utterly blind to the girl's vicious nature.
Mrs. Tilford is a key player in the tragic direction of the play. Although she initially resists believing Mary's slander, she is finally convinced that the girl is telling the truth. She comes close to discovering the truth when Dr. Cardin and the accused women question Mary, but once Rosalie Wells perjures herself in support of Mary's lies, Mrs. Tilford completely accepts Mary's account. Indignant and self-righteous, she then attempts to have the school closed, in turn compelling Karen and Martha to engage her in a libel suit.
After the civil trial, she discovers the truth. She tries to undo the damage and atone for her actions, but her efforts come too late. With Martha dead and her relationship with Cardin destroyed, Karen gives the contrite and devastated matron little hope of personal redemption.
The spoiled granddaughter of Amelia Tilford, Mary is a problem child at the Wright-Dobie School. She appears "undistinguished," but she is clever and used to having her own way with her doting grandmother. She also attempts to manipulate everyone at the school, resorting to a variety of tricks, including flattery, feigned sickness, blackmail, physical intimidation, and whining complaints. Karen and Martha are not fooled by her behavior. They easily penetrate her lies and schemes and insist on disciplining her, but they do not really understand the depths of the girl's depravity.
Mary responds to her punishment by turning venomous. From Evelyn and Peggy, she learns of the conservation between Martha and her Aunt Lily in which the latter refers to the relationship of Martha and Karen as "unnatural." Mary uses this to poison her grandmother's mind against the women, leading her to believe that they are lesbians. It is her malicious slander that ruins the lives of Karen and Martha, for she is only exposed as a liar after it is too late to prevent Karen's breakup with Dr. Cardin and Martha's suicide.
Rosalie, a student at the Wright-Dobie School, appears first in the hectic scene opening the play, having her hair badly trimmed by Evelyn Munn. Unlike Peggy and Evelyn, she is not cowed by Mary Tilford, whom she does not like. In fact, Karen and Martha plan to move Mary in with Rosalie, hoping that rooming with the stronger girl will put an end to Mary's troublemaking. But Mary finds out that Rosalie has stolen a bracelet from Helen Burton and threatens to expose her crime unless Rosalie does what Mary asks. As a result, Rosalie becomes a key character. She gives credibility to Mary's lies and convinces Mrs. Tilford that Mary is entirely truthful, making a reversal of the harm impossible.
Karen Wright is Martha Dobie's close friend and partner in the Wright-Dobie School. She is twenty-eight, attractive, warm, and outgoing. She is admired and respected by her students, for whom she has a genuine affection. She is also an emotionally stable woman, at ease with herself and others. Martha is drawn to her because of her strength and stability, qualities that Martha admires because she cannot find them in herself. Dr, Joe Cardin, Karen's fiancé, having a temperament much like Karen's, seems to love her more for her charm, gracious wit, and good looks than her emotional balance.
Although she tries to suppress her feelings, Martha fears the impending marriage of Karen and Cardin, believing that it will inevitably lead to an estrangement in her relationship with Karen. Karen and Joe both try to convince Martha that nothing will change, but she is too insecure to accept their reassurance.
Although Karen is a sensitive and caring person, she never detects any sexual desire in Martha's love for her. She has no such feelings herself, repressed or otherwise, thus she cannot fathom the complexity of Martha's jealousy. She loves Martha like a sister and is devastated both by Martha's confession and subsequent suicide. She is also emotionally crushed by the failure of the lawsuit against Amelia Tilford, which she had vigorously pursued. At the end of the play, her spirits simply sag into a kind of stoic acceptance of her fate, as is evidenced in her listless and mechanical final lines exchanged with Mrs. Tilford.