The City and the Pillar Characters

Gore Vidal

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In The City and the Pillar, Vidal was not the master of characterization that he was to become in such later novels as Julian (1964), Myra Breckinridge (1968), or Burr (1973). Jim Willard, as the protagonist, is more multifaceted than are the other main characters in this novel, but even he is developed more through Vidal’s omniscient presentation of him rather than by a well-constructed, consistent pattern of behavior.

In Jim, Vidal shaped a homosexual protagonist who did not fit the stereotype of the times. Handsome and athletic, Jim does not consider himself homosexual until well into the book. At first, he is able to dismiss his early affair with Bob Ford as being merely the adolescent experiment that Bob later labels it when he says, “that was awful kid stuff we did.” The fact that he has lingering thoughts about Bob does not strike Jim as indicative of ingrained homosexuality.

Even during his affair with Ronald Shaw, Jim continues to regard himself as essentially heterosexual—in part because he does not fall in love with Shaw. Shaw is a less rounded character than Jim. He is proud, narcissistic, and given to self-pity and melodrama, as is evident in his parting words to Jim: “I admit I’ve been hurt, terribly hurt by you, but I don’t hold it against you; that is probably the one quality I have that you will never find in anyone else: I could always forgive.”

In Paul Sullivan,...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jim Willard

Jim Willard, a homosexual youth, roughly seventeen years old and a high school junior at the beginning of the novel. He is tall and handsome, an athlete who has played both baseball and tennis, with short blond hair. In high school, Willard already has formed a sexual attraction to a male friend, Bob Ford, with whom he has his first sexual encounter while the two are on a summer camping trip. Willard is a romantic about love, regularly looking back in time to recapture the magic of his first idealized love, even in later affairs with a novelist, a Hollywood film star, and a woman. In his early adulthood—first at sea, later in California, Mexico, the Army, and New York—he pursues the illusion that he has created of his high school friend, Ford.

Bob Ford

Bob Ford, a tall, lean, and muscular high school athlete, with red, curly hair and blue eyes, who is Willard’s first love. Ford flees high school after graduation by joining the Merchant Marine. Later, he returns to his Virginia hometown to marry a high school girlfriend, Sally Mergendahl, with whom he fathers a child. Unlike Willard, Ford is a heterosexual who merely engaged in one homosexual experience, and his eventual reunion with Willard is a hostile confrontation.


Collins, a short, squarely built seaman, twenty years old, with dark, curly hair, whom Willard encounters when he ships out to try to find Ford. Collins is egotistical, particularly about his success with women sexually, and he takes Willard to a brothel in Seattle. Willard is repulsed by the situation.

Otto Schilling

Otto Schilling, a half-Austrian, half-Polish tennis instructor at a Beverly Hills hotel where Willard gets an assistant’s job...

(The entire section is 736 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The hero of this novel, Jim Willard, is accurately enough described as a "dumb bunny" by one of the characters in Two Sisters (1970)....

(The entire section is 223 words.)