The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Ruth Weiss, the protagonist, is present in almost every scene in the book. Reserved and shy from childhood, she reveals little of herself in conversation but much in her thoughts, which the narrator recounts in a straightforward, objective manner which seems, nevertheless, to have an undertone of pity and irony. On the other hand, the author presents George and Helen Weiss with a singular lack of charity, including in their portraits unredeemed flaws and follies but neither commenting nor condemning. Mrs. Cutler is the only comic character, certainly as lazy and self-indulgent as the elder Weisses, but amusing in her successful search for a husband and a relief from the gloom and boredom of Oakwood Court.

Despite Ruth’s reclusive nature and solitary life, she knows many people; the book is filled with characters who appear only once or twice yet who are unforgettable. Molly Edwards, for example, lives alone in Brighton, suffering horribly and bravely from an almost totally debilitating arthritis. Yet she welcomes the Weisses and does what she can to cheer and entertain them. Her silent courage echoes Ruth’s similar qualities.

The men in Ruth’s life—Richard, Professor Duplessis, and Roddy— are all hopelessly unsuitable; the third, the uninteresting hypochondriac to whom she is briefly married, gives her a feeling of security and gratitude, though the reader cannot help but suspect that the narrator finds this marriage as sad and empty as the two earlier relationships were frustrating and unfulfilled.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Ruth Weiss

Ruth Weiss, a scholar who is writing a multivolume study on the women in Honoré de Balzac’s novels and teaching a literature seminar. Caught in appearance and character halfway between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, forty-year-old Ruth has beautiful long red hair (often worn in a classical chignon) and a slight hesitation in her walk. Scrupulous, passionate, thoughtful, and introspective, she is extreme in everything and feels that her life has been ruined by literature. As the novel opens, Ruth is living alone and seeing her publisher once every six months for dinner. The novel recounts her past: her irregular home life with her parents and grandmother, her growing scholarly interests, and her romantic encounters in London and Paris, especially with Richard Hirst and Professor Duplessis. Her ultimate conviction is that moral fortitude is not enough to succeed in life; it is better, and easier, to be engaging and attractive.

George Weiss

George Weiss, a dealer in rare books. Gregarious, affable, and inaccessible to his daughter Ruth, George is glossy, cheery, and a bit of a dandy; he wears smart tweed suits, uses a cigarette holder, and sports a ready smile. In truth, he is somewhat unhappy, with vaguely unrealized dreams. He adores his wife yet is unfaithful to her with his assistant Miss Moss and then with the widowed Sally Jacobs. After his wife learns of the affair with Jacobs, George has a stroke and is nursed back to health by Ruth.

Helen Weiss

Helen Weiss, an actress. Beautiful, successful, and thin even into middle age, Helen is girlish and outrageous, not interested in being a mother to Ruth. When she is not working, Helen spends most of her time in bed, smoking and talking with Maggie Cutler and becoming increasingly listless. After the discovery of George’s latest affair, Helen refuses to stay under the same roof with him; she dies in a taxi with Ruth on the return from an abortive trip to Molly Edwards’ house.

Mrs. Weiss

Mrs. Weiss, the aging grandmother of Ruth and mother of George. Aware...

(The entire section is 873 words.)