The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Williams uses multiple voices and perspectives to create characterization in Dessa Rose. Of the five principal characters, Harker is the least complexly developed. Like Dessa’s first husband, Kaine, who appears in the novel only in Dessa’s memories, Harker is presented chiefly through Dessa’s description of him. However, the crucial scene in which Harker convinces Dessa to participate in the risky scheme that will make their future possible is structured as a dramatized conversation in which readers, like Dessa, feel the force of Harker’s words.

Nathan is seen through the eyes of a number of other characters: Dessa, who initially trusts him implicitly but feels betrayed by his choice of a white woman; Harker, who in his conversation with Dessa defends Nathan’s right—and by implication the right of all the escaped slaves—to make free choices; and Ruth, who finds him the most honest adult companion she has ever had. Williams also includes a brief section in which Nathan’s thoughts are presented to explain the complex effect of Miz Lorraine’s demand for his sexual services on his sense of identity and self-esteem.

Adam Nehemiah’s history, ambitions, and assumptions are thoroughly developed in the section of the novel called “The Darky,” which begins with him as the focus of narrative point of view. Lengthy passages reproduce the language of the journal in which he records Dessa’s story, his own reflections, and the events of his interaction with “the darky.” His language reveals that speculation about sex between Dessa and her...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dessa and Rufel are significantly parallel. Both have names that suggest homelessness: “Odessa” implies an odyssey, and “Ruth” calls to mind the loyal but exiled kinswoman of the Old Testament. Like Dessa’s Kaine, Rufel shares a star-crossed love: Nathan, the leader of the coffle uprising, simultaneously assumes skilled administration of the farm and acquires an amorous section of her bed. Dessa gives birth to a son she names Desmond Kaine (Mony); Rufel nurses an infant daughter. Dessa mourns her lost mother; similarly, Rufel grieves for the mammy who loved her more palpably than did her own distant biological mother. Finally, both women struggle to exhume, acknowledge, and exterminate feelings of abandonment by loved ones. For Dessa, this encompasses family members “sold away” to purchase racehorses, livestock, and other trophies. For Rufel, these feelings center upon her husband Bertie, whose sporadic and shortening visits to the Glen point to his addiction to gambling.

Though both women express differences caused by chasms of race and power, both eventually acknowledge these differences, bridge them, and appreciate each other as intimates and individual beings. This forwards the novel’s suggestion that physical liberation from oppression is accomplished by mental liberation from self-destructive images and toxic memories.

Kaine and Adam Nehemiah are another matched pair. Their names, from the fractured family of Genesis...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Dessa Rose

Dessa Rose, an African American woman who experiences both gender and racial inequality. As a slave, she knows not only marginality but also extreme violence, danger, and cruelty. She is a strong person, determined not to surrender her life or her child’s life to slavery’s victimization. She leads a slave rebellion. As the story develops, Dessa enters an intimate relationship with another fugitive slave, Harker. She escapes to freedom in the West with Harker, her son, and their friends.

Ruth Elizabeth Carson

Ruth Elizabeth Carson (also known as Miz Rufel and Rufel), a white woman who harbors and provides strategic aid to runaway slaves. She becomes an ally and friend for Dessa Rose, her baby, and Dessa’s fellow escaped slaves. When she becomes involved in a sexual relationship with Nathan, one of those slaves, Dessa so disapproves of their union that she refers to Miz Rufel as “Miz Ruint.”

Adam Nehemiah

Adam Nehemiah, a white man who wishes to record the story of Dessa Rose’s rebellion on the Wilson coffle, to be included as a case in his next book on slave management and slave uprisings. He is ambitious, and he hopes that this new book, coupled with the success of his first book, will help him to establish a place in planter society. He is ill-equipped, however, for a match of wits with Dessa Rose. After she escapes from prison, he obsessively tracks her.


Nathan and


Harker, two of the slaves who participate in the slave-coffle rebellion that nearly costs them their lives. While in hiding with Dessa Rose, these characters plan a brilliant deception that, with the assistance of Rufel, allows them to generate income by selling themselves back into slavery repeatedly, only to elude their prospective owners.


Kaine, Dessa’s lover and the father of her child, who is brutally and senselessly murdered before the events in the novel. Through memories and flashbacks, readers learn of him as a strong man, a tender partner to Dessa, and an ongoing inspiration to her struggle to resist slavery and escape its injustices.

List of Characters

Ada is a fugitive slave living on Rufel Sutton’s plantation. She works closely with Rufel and helps bring Dessa back to health after childbirth.

Aunt Chole
A stern, old black woman who answers a request by Sheriff to inspect Dessa’s body for scarring and branding marks, as described by Adam Nehemiah as he tries to capture Dessa. Aunt Chole listens carefully to Dessa during the ordeal and says she has seen nothing on her. Then she exits the cell.

Adam Nehemiah (Nemi)
Nehemiah is recording information about slave uprisings in his account entitled “The Roots of Rebellion in the Slave Population and Some Means of Eradicating Them.” Nehemiah interviews Dessa just after the Wilson Rebellion and before she is to be hanged.

Aunt Lefonia
One of the older female slaves on the Steele plantation, Aunt Lefonia guides the younger slaves. She also performs abortions to keep the woman from “breeding.”

Bertie Sutton
Bertie is the Master of the Sutton plantation and husband of Rufel or Ruth Sutton. He is known to be a gambler although he claims he is gone ‘trading.’

Boss Smith
He is the overseer on the Steele plantation. Dessa notes the great paleness of his skin and how over the spring and summer turns a shade closer to her skin color. He is known for keeping the slaves in line with his whip.

Dessa is the namesake and main character in the novel. She attacks a white man, Master Steele, after he has killed Kaine, her love and father of her baby. Dessa is sold to a brutal trader named Wilson. She is placed in a coffle and leads an uprising against him in order to escape.

He meets Dessa on the Wilson coffle. Dessa falls in love with Harker. He helps to plan the scam to sell themselves into slavery as part of a plot to earn money.

He is a slave on the Steele plantation who has a great love of music. He plays a banjo skillfully and often entertains the white people on the plantation. Dessa is pregnant with Kaine’s baby.

She is part of the coffle that Trader Wilson is transporting to market. She uses a rock to hit the guard, which begins the Wilson Rebellion.

Mammy (Dorcas)
She organizes the slave community at Sutton plantation and is like a mother to Rufel.

Nathan is a charismatic, big, and strong slave who befriends Dessa on the Wilson coffle. Nathan and Harker develop the plan to sell themselves into slavery as a scam to earn money.

Rufel (Miz Lady, Ruth Sutton)
Rufel a white woman who provides safety the runaway slaves. She becomes a friend for Dessa, her baby, and Dessa’s fellow escaped slaves.

Sheriff Hughes
The Sheriff who takes Dessa from the jail after Wilson Rebellion to his farm so that Dessa can be near his cook, a midwife.