Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
Fenton Ridgeway, a nineteen-year-old orphan in “63: Dream Palace.” He has come to the big city from West Virginia after his mother’s death, bringing along his sickly thirteen-year-old brother, Claire. Fenton is torn between caring for his brother—which keeps him trapped in an abandoned, rotting house, where Claire reminds him of family duty, God, and his mother—and involving himself with the dissolute, effete Parkhurst Cratty and the rich, alcoholic widow, Grainger, who are fascinated by his rough manners and good looks. He can be dull, oafish, and violent, but he also has clear insights into his own personality as well as the character of those around him. He describes himself as sick where his soul is supposed to be.
Parkhurst Cratty, a writer in “63: Dream Palace” who does not seem to write anything. He is fascinated by Fenton Ridgeway from the moment he meets him in the park. Cratty, who is supported by his wife, is looking for subject material. Cratty is, at first, determined to keep Ridgeway to himself, away from Grainger, the rich widow with whom he shares a drunken, almost surrealistic existence in her home, the “Dream Palace.” Eventually, when he does take Fenton there, Grainger verbally attacks Cratty while attempting to fit Fenton into the clothes, and the role, of her former husband.
The father, a cold, self-absorbed man in “Color of Darkness” whose wife has left him because he has time only for his work. He has left his son to be reared by the housekeeper, Mrs. Zilke. His isolation is so complete that he cannot even remember the color of his son’s eyes, despite the fact that his son looks just like him. He is unable to say the word “son” without a sense of nausea.
Paul, a sickly child in “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” who is forced to call his physically and verbally abusive mother Ethel, rather than Mama. His only comfort in life comes from eavesdropping on her telephone conversations with a friend and in looking through a box of photographs of the father he never knew. When his mother, resenting this interest, threatens to send him to an asylum unless he destroys the pictures, he desperately tries to protect them, crouching over them while a thick, black substance spews forth from his mouth.
Lois Klein, a middle-aged woman in “Don’t Call Me By My Right Name.” She is dissatisfied with her six-month marriage because she dislikes her husband’s last name. After drinking too much at a party, she publicly demands that he change his name. Even after her husband becomes violent, hitting her repeatedly when she keeps on arguing, her main grievance against him remains the shallow, superficial fact that he refuses to change his name.
Mahala, a middle-aged African American woman in “Eventide” who mourns the fact that her son left home more than a month ago. She is an overly possessive mother, preserving his dirty clothes in the closet, kissing and smelling them to keep his memory and presence with her. Although her sister, Plumy, lost her son when he was only four, Mahala had never had any sympathy for her. Now that she realizes her own son is lost to her, involved with a white woman in the world of jazz clubs, she begins to feel some identification with Plumy.
Mrs. Farebrother, a woman in “Sound of Talking” who is trapped in a marriage with a paraplegic husband. His suffering is so intense at times that it is difficult for her even to look at him. Both she and her husband are filled with resentment because of the charades they must endure. He insists that she talk to him to relieve his boredom, although they both know her conversation will only irritate him in the end. She forces herself to invent tales to meet his incessant questions. When he finally offers to buy her the raven she has been telling him about, she displays a rare honesty and admits that she does not want it. In fact, she is devastated to discover that she does not really want anything anymore.
Mrs. Zeller, who in “Cutting Edge” dominates her family until her grown artist son returns home for a visit. When he refuses to shave off his beard at her insistence, she reveals the emptiness and lack of love in the family.