The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Physically impressive, Johnson “looked like a man carrying a load on his shoulders, uncomplainingly, so strong, muscular and awkward, soft in voice, and thoughtful in every word he spoke.” Yet he “appeared to know so little and observe so little of other people.” Often central to V. S. Pritchett’s thinking about character is puritanism—one critic has called him the connoisseur of English puritanism—and Johnson is no exception. “The conscience of the puritan has need of its melodrama and mythology,” Pritchett observes of his protagonist. Johnson seeks hardship, courts the impossible, is self-torturing, is a loner; when to this constellation is added tropical fever and further guilt (toward Lucy and her stepfather), as well as the driving urge to find his father (or learn his fate), his actions in the novel—including the desertion of his companions—at least approach plausibility. It should be noted that Johnson risks the lives of others in the pursuit of his obsessions. Prior to sailing for Brazil, he foolhardily takes Lucy, against her will, out in a sailboat in a gale; he himself says that he caused Wright’s death. “He would have killed any woman,” observes Lucy at the end of the novel. How successful the author is in making the protagonist a believable character, each reader must decide for himself, but it is clear that the tormented Johnson is a badly flawed hero.

In some ways, Lucy is the right woman for Johnson: She too “had grown up with a love of the difficult.... She wanted greater and greater difficulties.” Lucy is “not very tall, a...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Harry Johnson

Harry Johnson, a timber merchant and adventurer who relishes solitude. He is about thirty years old, strong, muscular, and awkward. He has big brown eyes, a crinkled forehead, immensely broad shoulders, and a gentle, aloof manner. He is the son of a missionary who disappeared in the same Brazilian forest that Johnson is about to explore along with his two friends, Gilbert Phillips and Charles Wright. Before leaving England, he had a brief love affair with Wright’s stepdaughter, Lucy Mommbrekke. Obsessed with the fear that she may be having a child and that he will be chained to her, he falls ill on the launch that is taking him and Phillips upriver to rendezvous with Wright. He longs to talk to his friends but cannot bring himself to risk their saying that he has lost his nerve. When he recovers from his illness, he and Silva leave in a canvas canoe without telling Phillips and Wright, who overtake them. Johnson is punishing himself and Wright because he feels guilty and wants to be alone. Eventually, he forgets the other men and thinks only of his father, the dead man of the title. He is extremely brave: He makes a tremendous but unsuccessful effort to save Wright’s life, and, after weeks of cutting through the jungle, he staggers off to find water for Phillips and disappears.

Gilbert Phillips

Gilbert Phillips, an English journalist. He is about thirty years old, tall, and fair as a Dane. Since boyhood, he has been Johnson’s friend, and he is a former lover of Lucy. He is highly impressionable and is a worrier who...

(The entire section is 649 words.)