Contending Forces Characters
Will Smith is an idealist, whose championing of moral and intellectual enlightenment as the way forward for African Americans in the United States would later be mirrored by the theory of W. E. B. Du Bois. His passion and charisma as a speaker has rendered him a respected leader of black Bostonian society. He forms an earnest attachment with Sappho and does not give up when she runs away to the south. Ultimately, he succeeds in his goal of marrying her, because she comes to recognize the respect he has for her.
Sappho is unusual in the context of nineteenth-century female characters in that she is shown as a highly intelligent woman who engages in intellectual debates with Will and Dora over the condition of African Americans in the United States. She is very ashamed of her past, having been kidnapped by her white uncle and forced to work in a brothel for three weeks. When her father rescued her and threatened to prosecute her uncle, a white crowd came and destroyed his house. She was rescued by a servant and taken to a convent, where she gave birth to a son. She shows independence, the kind of survivor’s instinct that characterizes many of Hopkins’ women, when she comes to the north and finds stable work as a typist. While she feels genuine love for Will, she is intimidated by Langley’s threat to expose her past and runs away to the south, fearing that she might ruin Will’s reputation with what she perceives as her shameful history.
Dora shares Sappho’s survivor’s instinct, and she combines it with a strong and vibrant character. She initially loves John Langley but feels no compulsions in leaving him once he demonstrates attraction to Sappho. She shows her emotional intelligence by recognizing the genuine nature of the love that Arthur has for her, and she eventually marries him.
John is the example given by Hopkins of how capitalism can ruin black people in America. Money—“The Almighty Dollar,” as Hopkins puts it—rules his every action. He applies his materialistic view of life to every decision, including those relating to women. He sees the most profitable situation for him to be a sexual relationship with Sappho, for her beauty, and a marital relationship with Dora, for her social position. While he has intelligence, he is clearly putting this to poor use and is proving counterproductive to the efforts of Will and Arthur to advance their race.
An earnest, hardworking man, Lewis acts as Will’s intellectual foil, characterizing views representative of Booker T. Washington. He runs a technical college for African Americans and argues that good, honest, manual work is the first step they must take in their quest for social equality. He is persistent without being inappropriate in his pursuit of Dora, and his persistence is eventually rewarded.
The slave-owning protagonist in the first part of the novel, Montfort has a generous nature and a sympathetic personality, but his goodness is poisoned by slavery. This is shown when he uproots his family and all his slaves to leave Bermuda for the sole purpose of preserving his material situation. He is murdered by Anson Pollack, and his children are sold into slavery, despite their skin color.
Anson Pollack is John Langley's ancestor and Charles Montfort's murderer-by-proxy. He shares John's violent and jealous nature.
Charles and Jesse Montfort
Charlies and Jesse Montfort are forced into slavery following their father's murder. Charles is sent to England as a slave, and his descendants meet up with the Smiths at the end of the novel to provide them with their inheritance. Jesse, on the other hand, escapes to a free state, where he lives a happy life.
Hopkins has made excellent use of the social and historical climate of her day in delineating her characters. In her effort to portray the “contending forces” (“conservatism, lack of brotherly affiliation, lack of energy for the right...
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