Meshach Barry is a complex character who acknowledges to his audience that he is perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. By describing his feelings of guilt toward his daughter and by referring to himself as a hypocrite, a preacher who loves to stand in the pulpit and give sermons but who does not actually believe in God, Meshach makes it clear that he is not to be considered a noble or even a likable character. By establishing his own actions as negative, Meshach focuses positive attention on Cager, whom he calls the hero of his story. By introducing himself as an unreliable, biased storyteller, Meshach suggests that everything in his narrative, including Cager’s goodness, is questionable.
Cager Lee’s faith in African Americans’ need and ability to control their own destiny, coupled with his single-minded determination to help his people regardless of the cost to himself, clearly establishes him as a foil for the ambivalent Meshach. Cager is a martyred saint, a visionary secular prophet who believes that the ends justify the means. Cager’s intense conviction in the necessity of black self-determination is offset, however, by his naïveté. He is unable to distinguish between the militant rhetoric of The Chicago Hawk and factual reporting, and he is crushed when Haley Barnes informs him that Chicago is no mecca for African Americans. Although his determination is admirable, Cager’s childish simplicity, as pointed out by Barnes, makes him another questionable character.
After Cager goes to work for Mrs. Dabney, several people, including Mrs. Dabney’s daughter Gussie, remark how the old woman has grown strangely attached to the boy in some mysterious way. Gussie remarks that it is as if Cager has cast some sort of spell over the old woman. Portrayed early in the novel as a crotchety, iron-fisted matriarch used to having the last word in every matter, Mrs. Dabney evolves into a more compassionate woman who begins to question whether the racist beliefs she has lived by are really ordained by God, as she has been taught. Her sympathy for Cager grows as the novel progresses, ending, ironically, only when she realizes that Cager is about to kill her.
Haley Barnes, noting the change that has come over Mrs. Dabney, provoking her to donate money for a new liberal arts building on the Gladstone campus, is satisfied that he has helped Cager out of his academic predicament. When Cager comes to see Haley about his plan to move to Chicago, Barnes is angered by his student’s naïveté. The compassionate Barnes truly cares about Cager and worries that the boy will spend his life dreaming up fruitless schemes for black militant action. Begging Cager to abandon his inflammatory newspaper and devote himself to learning the history of his people, Barnes acts as a father figure for Cager, trying to steer him on what he perceives as the best path. When Cager kills Mrs. Dabney and is lynched, it is Haley Barnes who feels responsible for bringing the two together. The ruin of Cager’s life, added to the burden of losing his sister in a violent way, reduces Barnes to a somber shadow of a man who lives the rest of his life in a well of guilt.
The peripheral characters in the town of Valhalla are also profoundly affected by the novel’s dramatic climax. Cyrus Colter presents a vivid picture of the various inhabitants of Valhalla who knew Cager and whose lives were irrevocably altered by the events surrounding his death. There are no minor characters in Valhalla. Colter illustrates each person, from restaurant keeper Shorty George to the lecherous traveling preacher Bearcat Walker, in great detail. It is clear the entire community can never be the same after Cager kills Mrs. Dabney and is later dragged from the courthouse and set on fire.
Meshach Coriolanus Barry
Meshach Coriolanus Barry, the narrator, a lonely, obsessive fifty-five-year-old black pastor. A life of professional tragedies as well as accomplishments has led him through prison and...
(The entire section is 1,200 words.)