The Fat Man in History

by Peter Carey

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Alexander Finch

Alexander Finch is the story’s protagonist. He is a very fat man in a time when being fat is thought be indicative of selfishness, laziness, and greed as well as the sign of an oppressor. Before the revolution in his country, it had been a good and desirable thing to be fat, as it was associated with prosperity and wealth.

After the revolution, however, he was fired from his job for being “slovenly,” and he is compelled to share a house with five other fat men and to steal in order to eat. Although he fears that he will get in trouble with another housemate, he steals new bedsheets (considered a luxury) as well as a book on the painter Botticelli. He even decorates his small, metal-walled room, as he cannot abide by a total lack of beauty or culture.


One of the men Finch lives with is named Milligan, and he is the only one of the six fat men who has a job: he drives a taxi. Milligan always wants to be tucked in by May, and almost all the men come to him for loans to pay the rent at one time or another.


Glino is another roommate. He keeps a garden in the yard and is a vegetarian. He also makes homemade beer that no one likes, but the men drink it anyway. Glino claims to know what being in prison is like, and he also never looks directly at anyone. He plays the harmonica, and sometimes the members of the house dance to his music.


A once-married man named May also lives in the home. He does not know where his wife is, and she presumably left him after the revolution because he was fat. May plays the work of Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer, over and over again, even though it makes him sad.


Fantoni is the youngest man in the house, but he is the one who is in charge. He can steal or “arrange anything” (except for the dynamite that he wants in order to blow up a statue celebrating the revolution).

Fantoni is the ringleader of just about everything, and he gives orders to the others. In the end, he orchestrates the plan to kill and eat the woman they call Florence Nightingale; however, she manipulates things so that Fantoni is cooked and eaten instead. He is the twenty-third man to find himself in this position, and each man who takes over for Fantoni also takes on the name Fantoni.

The Unnamed Man

One of the roommates will not tell anyone else his name. He is bigger and stronger than the rest of them, even Fantoni, and he keeps to himself and is less sociable than the others. He has a sexual relationship with Florence Nightingale that ultimately results in the men choosing to eat Fantoni rather than her. He then tells them to call him Fantoni, starts wearing Fantoni’s clothes, and takes over Fantoni’s room. He is, according to Florence Nightingale’s memo at the end, the twenty-third Fantoni.

Nancy “Florence Nightingale” Bowlby

Nancy Bowlby, whom the men call “Florence Nightingale,” works for the government and comes to collect the men’s rent money each week. She has developed a special, private relationship with Finch, as he seems to be the most susceptible to her manipulation (which readers only learn of in the very end of the story), and she also has a sexual relationship with the man who will not tell anyone his name.

She is grooming the man who will not tell anyone his name to be the next Fantoni, as she has done twenty-two times before. Finch says that all six men are in love with her, though Fantoni denies it. In the end, she seems to be the one running everything—not Fantoni—and readers begin to piece together all the ways that she has been manipulating the men in order to achieve her desired ends.

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