Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
Pip Thompson, the protagonist, the lone upper-middle-class recruit among working-class conscripts. He resists the efforts of the officers to enlist him as one of them. His hatred of the class system was catalyzed one day by an accidental experience in a dirty East End café; its tea-stained menu, written in a beautifully foreign hand, read “Chips With Everything.” Pip is both envied and criticized as a snob by his fellow draftees. Even the officers regard his sympathy with the working class as a perverse form of snobbery. His revulsion to killing is displayed in his temporary defiance of an order to participate in bayonet practice. Both his rebellion and his leadership ability are evident in a carefully planned and successfully executed raid on a nearby coke pile, undertaken to keep the hut warm. In the surprise ending that evoked ambivalent responses from critics, Pip suddenly dons an officer’s uniform. His joining ranks with the “other side,” however, is not meant to draw on his middle-class privilege but is instead precipitated by the impending arrest of the entire hut for the men’s refusal of an order to take a runaway (Smiler) to the guard room. Pip’s new authority allows him to override the Pilot Officer’s command to imprison the men. He does so in the name of loyalty—his and the men’s—to a higher responsibility in which understanding of the need to protect a fellow serviceman, in this case the much-abused Smiler, is accommodated.
Smiler Washington, a homesick recruit identified by the perpetual smile with which he was born and cannot erase. He becomes the major butt of criticism from his superiors as each one of them commands him to wipe the smile from his face, something he cannot do. Because the “bastards” will not believe him, he reaches a breaking point and runs away. After suffering bleeding feet in his long walk, he is returned to the hut. Rather than imprisonment, his punishment (by Pip) is to be put three weeks back in flight.
Charles (Chas) Wingate
Charles (Chas) Wingate, a recruit who both envies and resents Pip’s educational advantages. Like Pip, who at first lies about having six brothers, he invents four brothers. They confess and establish a conversational relationship; Charles longs to be able to talk with Pip on equal terms. He constantly asks Pip questions and is fascinated by his tales of history, especially of the French Revolution, at first even accusing Pip of making up stories.
Wilfe Seaford, the first of the recruits to mock Pip’s posh background. He sings a bawdy tune and is told by Pip to put his working-class halo away because they will have to put up with one another for the next eight weeks.
Andrew McClure, a Scot and an electrician who rejects the Pilot Officer’s advances when the latter places his hands on Andrew’s knee. He further defies the Wing Commander’s wish for a cheerful or modern piece (such as an Elvis Presley song) by reciting a melancholy Robert Burns poem.
Archie Cannibal, who accuses Dickey (in the bed next to him) of talking so much that he sounds like an adding machine. At the Christmas party, the two men grapple in a physical fight, but they leave together, with Cannibal helping Dickey up from a fall.
Dickey Smith, the eldest of the new conscripts and, therefore, assigned by Corporal Hill to be his assistant. Having attended a technical school, he exercises his verbal superiority over Cannibal, whom he accuses at the Christmas party of “having uttered...
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a syllable of many dimensions.”
Dodger Cohen, one of the two smallest recruits. He is assigned to factotum duties for Corporal Hill. A comically realistic character, he tells of his family’s pram business that is always short of storage space. He sees every pregnant woman as a potential pram buyer and every building, even the hut, as a potential pram storage place.
Corporal Hill, the fair but stern driller of discipline, particularly in the “square-bashing” of marching techniques.
Wing Commander, the moral disciplinarian for whom honor, along with thrift and respect, is paramount.
Squadron Leader, the legal enforcer of discipline.
Pilot Officer, the overseer of neatness and cleanliness and the most informal of the officers in his relationship with the recruits.
Physical Training, a noncommissioned officer whose aim is to make the men sweat like Niagara Falls until they look like Greek Gods.