The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The reader senses a tinge of irony in Wilder’s frequent references to John Ashley as “late-maturing” and “unreflective.” Ashley is a man uninterested in the goals of most people who are considered mature: the making of money, advancement on the job, community acknowledgment. He happily allows Lansing the credit for his own work in the Coaltown mine. He would rather invent useful devices than patent or sell them. Even his family knows little or nothing of his charities, which typically take the form of deeds rather than of donations. He is “unreflective,” for example, in his failure to see the good in making his inventions and services available to the world at large. No abstract philanthropist, Ashley wishes only to help people within his ken. Nor do discriminations of rank, wealth, race, ethnicity, and religion mean anything to him. He restricts his thinking to the solution of practical problems and the assistance of neighbors.

Wilder draws Beata Ashley in the broadest of descriptive strokes. She is a colorless character completely devoted to her husband; as wife of a supposed murderer, she stands proud, silent, aloof. The children, especially Roger and Sophia, resemble their father in their energetic and resourceful approach to pressing problems, although as social outcasts with their usual source of income cut off, they are more cunning and calculating. Roger’s rise to eminence in Chicago journalism before he is out of his teens is less credible than Sophia’s labors to establish the boardinghouse that her mother would have been too proud to initiate and too distant to maintain alone. Both Lily and Constance, the youngest daughter, resemble...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Barrington Ashley

John Barrington Ashley, later James Tolland, a mining engineer falsely convicted of murder in Coaltown, Illinois, who escapes to Chile. He is “neither dark nor light, tall nor short, fat nor thin, bright nor dull”; that is, he is a typical Midwesterner. He is a creative tinkerer, a hard worker, and an active humanitarian of great energy of mind and body who deplores sloth and despair. Although he is areligious, he has faith and aids others in their religious pursuits and beliefs. He is the personification of charity, and he embodies the best virtues of Protestantism—responsibility, industry, frugality, love, dedication, and sacrifice. His constructive practicality, idealism, and moral consciousness set him apart from the ordinary, though paradoxically he is presented as a typical American of his time. Like Job, he overcomes humiliation, suffering, and the afflictions of his flesh and family, though he has to resume his life in Chile, where he is known as James Tolland, a Canadian engineer.

Beata Ashley

Beata Ashley, John’s wife, a woman of German descent from a Hoboken, New Jersey, family. She is somewhat aloof, serene, and unable to become intimate with neighbors, the result of having been brought up as “royalty.” She is cultured (she plays the piano competently) and conventional, though she eloped with John and had four children in nineteen years without having been married. Her efforts at respectability preclude spontaneity and a practical solution to keeping her family without her husband’s income.

Lily Ashley

Lily Ashley, their eldest daughter, beautiful, assured, elegant, and wise in the ways of the world. She reads wisely and well. She does housework by day and devotes evenings to the study of music, eventually becoming a famous concert singer. Her emotional vulnerability is suggested by her bohemianism in eloping with a boarder, Malcolm Ladislas, who is a salesman and drummer. She is practical, however, and supports herself and her son by singing in churches and on social occasions. She is without vanity, has a wry wit, and is fearless, self-confident, and admirable.

Roger Ashley

Roger Ashley, John and Beata’s son,...

(The entire section is 928 words.)