The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cooper is an expansive storyteller, and she uses a narrative device in Family that is tricky and not entirely successful as the novel winds down. She asks her readers to suspend belief early in the story by making her narrator a spirit, one who is capable of describing not only events but also states of mind. Consequently, point of view tends to become skewed at times, even though Clora promises from the beginning that Always is her favorite child and the one to whom she will devote most of her narrative attention. Through this narrative device, a reader may be better able to appreciate the plight of Always as well as her motivation and character, but the other characters for whom the narrator also professes love become peripheral, tangential to the plot except as foils.

Cooper also tends to use dialect only when it is convenient, and the shifts from Standard English to argot are sometimes jarring. Spelling of words in dialect is also not standard; “y’all” in Clora’s mouth becomes “you’ll,” a decidedly unsouthern spelling and pronunciation. Dialogue, however, is limited. The longest exchanges are between Always and Tim on their wedding night and between Always and Doak, Jr., in her hut.

Clora, while still alive, seems to suggest that her fate of suicide is inevitable. What she fails to consider is that her children would survive her to continue their suffering. Clora’s spirit, then, is bound to earth so that she can “live” through Always. Unable to impart to her...

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Clora, the narrator, born a slave to a woman who kills herself and her master. Truly omniscient, Clora is a phantom, a time-traveler who poisoned herself rather than continue living as a slave. She stays on to look after her favorite child.


Always, Clora’s favorite daughter, who loved all natural life as a child only to become embittered by slavery and to turn into an acquisitive, proud, and assertive woman, one who prospers through hatred and ambition.


Sun, another of Clora’s children, born so light-skinned that he is able to escape north with the help of his half sister, Loretta. He “passes,” marries the daughter of an immigrant Frenchman, and becomes a successful businessman.


Peach, Clora’s other surviving daughter. She is pretty and good-natured, and she learns the skills of homemaking as a personal maid to Loretta. She is sold to a Scotsman, who marries her and takes her away to live in affluence in Europe.

Sue Butler

Sue Butler, the wife of Doak Butler, who buys Always and fathers her child. Sue is the mistress of the farm that Always tends with Doak’s disabled brother Jason and his slave Poon. Sue is important as a foil in this novel.

Loretta Butler

Loretta Butler, Doak’s second wife and the half sister of Always. She had helped Sun to escape north, but his refusal to send for her, to take her away from the poor, rural South, leaves her angry and mean-spirited. Joy comes to her in the guise of a child, Apple, whose father is Sephus, Always’ son. In the confusing, incestuous family of this novel, Loretta becomes the aunt and mother of her half sister’s grandchild.

Doak, Jr.

Doak, Jr., the true son of Always. She swaps the boy, originally named Soon, with her master’s son. He returns from the war to find his inheritance endangered. Always trades some of Doak, Sr.’s gold for her life and land of her own. Eventually, Doak, Jr.’s hatred of Always leads him to allow the Ku Klux Klan to ravage her land and livestock. He has, by this time, become the richest landowner in the county.