Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
Charles, Katherine’s husband, a radio advertising executive and father. He recalls the birth and immediate death of his firstborn son, Nathaniel, from the perspective of several years later. Through his recollections, he comes to reconcile the death, to release the years of grief, and to place his own role and the role of his son within the birth-death experience. Charles is a man of feeling but not of fortitude and conviction. When a young internist describes how some men take to their own beds when their wives become pregnant, Charles and Katherine privately assent to the behavior. During the birth of Nathaniel, Charles’s powerlessness makes him deferential, and he is ordered out of the delivery room, despite his promise to Katherine that he will not leave her. He has difficulty articulating his sentiments, and, following his son’s death, he succumbs to the high-pressured recommendations of Dr. Harner, who urges him to sign the child over for hospital research before seeing Katherine. The death settles in Charles as an ache that takes years to soothe. Finally, after the birth of four healthy children, he fully accepts his son’s death and feels free of his memories and his burden as he begs God’s forgiveness. Through a freshly acquired awareness of Nathaniel’s power to secure his parents’ marriage, Charles experiences his own rebirth.
Katherine, Charles’s wife and a mother. Her pregnancy and experience of childbirth metaphorically produce a marriage rather than a child. Whereas prior to the pregnancy, she had an affair and was uncommitted to Charles, her birth experience joins her with the child and then with her husband. She is more intuitive and expressive than Charles. When she tries to convey to him the lesson of the dead child, that “time and events can never destroy actual love,” she quickly recognizes that whereas she understands now, he will do so only later. Although the loss of the child depresses her, unlike Charles she immediately senses the significance of Nathaniel’s arrival and his capacity to unite them. Although Katherine feels betrayed by Charles because he signed over the child’s body without consulting her, Nathaniel’s death becomes the seed of a new commitment in their marriage.
Nathaniel, the firstborn son of Charles and Katherine. Although he is never seen by either of his parents, his presence nevertheless floods their lives, and he functions as the catalyst in reuniting them. His entry in the story parallels a scene in the excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that Charles reads to Katherine as she labors in his birth.
Dr. Harner, Katherine’s obstetrician. Young, heavy, and balding, he is an insensitive and pragmatic physician who provides no emotional support to his patient and her husband. In fact, he avoids personal interaction by safely deferring to his medical assessments, and he responds to patient questions either humorously or cavalierly.