The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Amusingly and with understanding, Ethel Wilson presents the Johnsons as a working-class couple whose humdrum marriage is marred, though not violently disrupted, by misunderstandings and petty arguments. They live on the surface of life, unable to articulate their deeper feelings. These are occasionally presented as pronouncements by their attendant angels, a rather awkward authorial device.

In contrast to the Johnsons, whose lives seem characterized by friction, Myrtle’s Aunty Emblem exudes a “golden effulgence” that is derived from her plump prettiness, self-satisfaction, and popularity. Myrtle finds her aunt’s visits trying, especially when her aunt, twice widowed and once divorced, advises her about how to keep a husband satisfied. Yet even this gregarious and maternal figure-an emblem indeed-has come to enjoy most that time of day when she is alone in bed reading the personals columns in the newspapers, as if having “discovered the joys of privacy [she] does not wish to lose them, for at least she now owns herself.”

In stark contrast to Myrtle’s aunt is Myrtle’s cousin Vicky. A timid spinster, she lives alone in a boardinghouse, in a room lit by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling; her sole indulgence is to read one film magazine a week. Aside from going to her job as a shop assistant and to church, her only outings are to visit Myrtle, who characteristically finds her trying but tolerates her. Yet Vicky is the one who...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Myrtle Johnson

Myrtle Johnson, a middle-aged domestic servant who is married to Mort. Myrtle, an unattractive woman, controls not only Mort but also her employer, as well as most people with whom she has frequent contact. She does this by portraying herself as the eternal victim and by manipulating others into assuming guilt for her current complaint or discomfort. With eyelids half closed and a smirk on her lips, she manages to make others feel insecure and unworthy, regardless of their achievement or good fortune. When the police bring the news to her that Mort and his drunken friend have accidentally drowned together, Myrtle, assuming that Mort also was drunk, becomes furious that her husband has disgraced her. Her cousin, Victoria May Tritt, who saw Mort and his friend immediately before the accident, redeems Mort in Myrtle’s eyes by telling her the truth, that Mort definitely was not drunk. Myrtle uses the story of Mort as a hero who attempted to save his friend to retain her position of dominance over those who remain in her circle.

Mortimer (Mort) Johnson

Mortimer (Mort) Johnson, Myrtle’s enslaved husband. In middle age, he is short and stocky, once strong but now flabby, with kind brown eyes. Mort works, when he will, as a laborer. He is the type who calls himself a landscaper when he is hired to dig soil, a plumber when he is paid to haul pipe, and a horse-breaker when his work is near a stable. He is sensitive to his lowly position in life and works at a job no longer than he can retain his delusion of importance. When Mort’s friend Eddie stumbles off the end of a dock into dark water, Mort jumps in to save him. He is pulled under by the struggling Eddie. Both men drown in a matter of a few minutes, before anyone is aware of their desperate situation.

Victoria May Tritt

Victoria May Tritt, an unmarried cousin of Myrtle Johnson. Victoria May lives alone in Vancouver and has a job in a small notions shop. In her room, while sitting in a straight chair under a bare bulb that hangs from the center of the room’s ceiling, she reads the film magazine that she buys once a week. Victoria is very lonely, having no one except Myrtle, of whom she is afraid. Her timidity prevents her from seeking any real solution to her loneliness. Instead, she creates a comforting, familiar routine for herself, and the mechanics of her daily existence become virtually all there...

(The entire section is 999 words.)