Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639
Edith Howland, the protagonist. As the novel opens, Edith moves with her husband, Brett, and their ten-year-old son, Cliffie, from New York City to Brunswick Corner, Pennsylvania. She and Brett open the Brunswick Corner Bugle, a local newspaper that fails shortly afterward. After Cliffie is grown, but while he is still living at home, Brett divorces Edith to marry Carol Junkin, his secretary. Edith and her friend Gert Johnson revive the Bugle. Edith also writes left-wing articles and fantasy short stories. Edith takes up sculpture and continues to write in her diary, which contains a blend of fact and fantasy (especially about Cliffie). As the novel progresses, Edith becomes increasingly obsessed with politics, especially U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, as she descends into madness.
Brett Howland, Edith’s husband. Also a journalist, he works for the Trenton Standard. He is portrayed as a typical middle-class father who loves his wife and son, but he is incapable of dealing with Cliffie’s emotional immaturity, which occasionally borders on psychosis. Brett eventually falls in love with his secretary, Carol, divorces Edith, marries Carol, and moves back to New York, where he begins a new family. He all but despises his son and is unable to deal effectively with his invalid Uncle George, whom he leaves under Edith’s care after the divorce.
Cliffie Howland, Edith and Brett’s emotionally disturbed son. He is at once both the most apathetic and the most amoral character in the novel. As a child, he attempts to smother Mildew, the family cat, ruins a Christmas turkey by gouging the breast, “playfully” aims a rifle at his father on a camping trip, and jumps into the Delaware River in the middle of winter. As an adult, he becomes a heavy drinker, gets caught cheating on his college entrance examinations, hits a pedestrian with his car after getting drunk, dumps the contents of Uncle George’s bedpan all over the room when Edith is at her great-aunt Melanie’s deathbed, and finally, murders George by giving him an overdose of codeine. Able to hold only temporary or part-time jobs, he becomes the town clown.
George, Brett’s wealthy, invalid uncle who comes to live with the Howlands after they move to Pennsylvania. As the novel progresses, George, a retired lawyer who suffers from a mysterious back ailment, becomes increasingly bedridden and dependent on painkillers, especially codeine. George refuses to move to a nursing home after Brett divorces Edith.
Melanie, Edith’s wealthy great-aunt, who serves as Edith’s touchstone for emotional support and values. Melanie’s twice yearly visits put even Cliffie on his best behavior; he thinks he may inherit money from her. Her death is seen as the one of the last key events leading to Edith’s mental instability.
Gert Johnson, Edith’s close friend and partner on the Bugle. Edith admires Gert’s Bohemian lifestyle and thinks they share the same political outlook. The friendship becomes strained as Derek, Gert’s son, is drafted and sent to Vietnam and Cliffie mysteriously escapes military service. Gertie continually pressures Edith to tone down her editorials for the Bugle and eventually conspires with Brett to get Edith to see a psychiatrist.
Carol Junkin, Brett’s secretary, lover, and second wife. She bears Brett a daughter.
Dr. Francis Carstairs
Dr. Francis Carstairs, George’s doctor. At Brett’s insistence, he tries to get Edith to see a psychiatrist. Carstairs suggests that George’s death was caused by an overdose but suspects suicide rather than murder. He does not order an autopsy.
Debbie Bowden, the imaginary wife Edith creates for Cliffie in her diary. Edith fantasizes that Debbie and Cliffie, whom she pictures as a successful engineer, have two children, Josephine and Mark.