Foreign Affairs Characters
by Alison Lurie

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The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beneath the surface of each of the major characters in Foreign Affairs are a number of fantastic selves that run contrary to first impressions. The seemingly self-sufficient Vinnie reveals another identity through her imaginary dog Fido, who embodies her self-pity and self-involvement. Although Vinnie’s appearance is that of an unprepossessing, inhibited, middle-aged professor, when she ventures into the London night to search for Fred, she seems to become a hooded, mysterious Druid acting as an agent of destiny for her hapless colleague. By the end of her story, Vinnie is not the self-absorbed, mousy snob she suggests on the surface but instead has become a wise woman who can act generously and insightfully. This is indicated most interestingly by Vinnie’s name. Her last name, Miner, suggests her status as a “minor” figure whom no one really notices—she is a minor writer, and an older woman who would ordinarily play only a minor role in a romantic comedy of manners. If her professional name is read as an anagram, however, she emerges not as the diminutive, easily overlooked V. A. Miner but as Minerva, goddess of wisdom.

Like Vinnie, Chuck Mumpson also reveals a deeper and better identity, giving him new dignity and status. This transformation from an undesirable partner to a worthy consort echoes the well-known “Frog Prince” fairy tale and is also indicated by his ancestor, Old Mumpson. Chuck discovers that Old Mumpson was a beloved hermit who, although far from having a noble lineage, was revered far and wide as a wise old man who could be trusted to dispense wise counsel. This image also applies to Vinnie. When she is given a portrait of Old Mumpson after Chuck’s death, it is as if this symbol of elder wisdom now rightfully belongs to her.

Fred and Rosemary also reveal sides of themselves that would be more at home in fairy tales or fiction than in everyday life. Fred is, apparently, an agreeable and good-looking professor who has come to England to study the author John Gay. His experiences, however, lead him to realize he is more like Gay’s most famous character, the rascally Mack the Knife. Similarly, the beautiful Rosemary doubles into the vulgar charwoman Mrs. Harris, virtually a mad witch. This sense of magic transformation moves the novel beyond ordinary realism, enriching and deepening the characters and elucidating the central theme of appearance and reality.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Vinnie Miner

Vinnie Miner, a fifty-four-year-old unmarried professor who specializes in children’s literature at Corinth University in New York. Vinnie is an Anglophile and is in London to study the rhymes of schoolchildren. She meets another American, Chuck Mumpson, whom she at first snubs but whose kindness eventually inspires in her a more generous view of men and of transatlantic cultural values.

Fred Turner

Fred Turner, Vinnie’s colleague in the Corinth English Department. He also is studying in London. Fred is separated from his wife, Roo, and is struggling with his research on John Gay, which he hopes will win him tenure. Fred is an innocent American in this comic reprise of Henry James’s theme of the New World coping with the Old.

Chuck Mumpson

Chuck Mumpson, a retired sanitary engineer from Tulsa whom Vinnie meets on the plane to London. Chuck’s hearty mid-America ways are an embarrassment to the Anglophile Vinnie, but she comes to feel differently about him. Chuck searches for aristocratic roots in Wiltshire but comes up with only a mad hermit among his forebears.

Ruth (Roo) March

Ruth (Roo) March, Fred Turner’s wife and the daughter of Vinnie’s bête noire, the critic L. D. Zimmern. Roo is a free spirit who goes by the name March because of her identification with Jo March of the novelLittle Women. She and Fred are estranged over their disagreement concerning revealing photos of Fred’s anatomy she had exhibited.

Rosemary Radley

Rosemary Radley, a television star from the Tallyho Castle series. Rosemary admits to being thirty-seven years...

(The entire section is 2,872 words.)