Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557
Sammy Mountjoy, the narrator and protagonist, a well-known artist who has risen from abject poverty through his talents. In the novel, he is not concerned about his rise to fame, instead recounting his moral and spiritual development. He finds such development not in the gradually unfolding events of his life but in certain specific moments, recounted as memories. The most significant of such moments is when he lost his innocence and thus the freedom of choice; further, he took on guilt and experienced the bondage of the will. He feels his life is therefore divided into a before and an after. The before consists of his school life. The after begins at his high school graduation, which therefore becomes a graduation into slavery, a slavery that lasts up to his experience of despair in a cell of a prisoner-of-war camp. He owns this part of his life and feels guilt for it, even though he recognizes that he could have lived no other way. This prison experience has symbolically broken the prison of his own self-centeredness, so he can perceive the glory of life. This is where he is living as he writes the book. He realizes that others, like Beatrice, are trapped as a result of his past, and he must continue to bear responsibility.
Beatrice Ifor, the daughter of respectable shopkeepers. She attends Sammy’s high (grammar) school and then trains to be a teacher near Sammy’s art college in London. Even though she is pious and conformist, she is seduced by Sammy, who sees her as mysterious, nunlike, and secret. After trying to relate to her, he is appalled by her passivity, the role she adopts as victim, and her doglike devotion. Sammy’s desertion of her is probably the main cause of her insanity.
Rowena Pringle, a teacher at the high school, specializing in history and religious education. She is a complex character, pious and fastidious, maintaining discipline through fear and emotional manipulation. She delivers spellbinding accounts of Bible stories. She has an inveterate hostility to Sammy, based, it is suggested, on her own repressed sexuality—she wants to marry the vicar. She accuses Sammy of dirty-mindedness to the headmaster.
Nick Shales, a brilliant and popular science teacher at the high school. He respects his students and relates closely to them. He, too, has risen from poverty and has become a socialist idealist. He believes in a rational, ordered world, and his exemplary life wins Sammy over both to his politics and to his atheism.
Ma, a fat, shapeless earthy woman at the bottom of the social pile. She has occasional work, frequents the pub, and makes up all sorts of stories as to the identity of Sammy’s father.
Father Watts-Watt, a high church Anglican vicar, paranoid and battling to suppress his pedophilia and sexual fantasies. He is unable to relate to anyone, including Sammy, whose guardian he becomes on the death of Sammy’s mother.
Dr. Halde, a university professor of psychology. He has been enrolled in the Gestapo to interrogate prisoners. He appears rational and urbane, his morality relativistic—the tempter figure. His methods do not win the approval of the army officers running the camp, but they open Sammy’s eyes to his own nature.
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