The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In attempting to account for the life and career of a distinguished failure, O’Hara faced a formidable challenge: In order to interest the reader in such a man as Alfred Eaton, he had first to make the character appealing; at the same time, he would also prepare Alfred’s fate in such a way that it did not seem implausible. Were Alfred as thoroughly disagreeable as some of his fellow characters appear to find him, it is unlikely that any reader would care enough to follow his adventures over eight hundred pages; on the other hand, what happens to Alfred must nevertheless be seen as the credible result of his accumulated actions. To O’Hara’s considerable credit, the character of Alfred Eaton emerges as both plausible and generally admirable, frequently deserving of the reader’s understanding; his fatal flaw, as one character observes, is that he is “an attractive man with an unattractive outlook on people.”

Alfred’s general distrust of his fellow mortals is amply accounted for by the unenviable accident of birth order; having learned to distrust his father, unprepared for the attention suddenly showered upon him by outsiders after his elder brother’s death, Alfred soon comes to distrust even himself. Aware of his truculent nature, he will nevertheless assume the responsibility for Victoria Dockwiler’s early death, following a quarrel during which he specifically forbade her to ride in the borrowed Stutz Bearcat; he will also blame himself for the short, unhappy amatory life of Norma Budd, whose troubled love he was, in fact, too young to...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Raymond Alfred Eaton

Raymond Alfred Eaton, a boy who, especially after the death of his older brother, is emotionally neglected by his father and is disillusioned by his mother’s increasingly apparent alcoholism and infidelities. He develops a strong sense of self-sufficiency while boarding at Knox Preparatory School, while attending Princeton University, and while serving with the Navy during World War I. He becomes a handsome and remarkably poised young man, exhibiting a genuine charm balanced by a polite reserve. He falls in love with Victoria Dockwiler and then Norma Budd, but his willfulness causes both relationships to end abruptly and badly. In these relationships and his two marriages, his faith in the long-term value of behaving sensibly comes close to being a rationalization of a selfish insensitivity. Likewise, in his professional relationships, his propriety isolates him in his successes. His self-assurance allows him to underestimate those who are more unself-consciously calculating. A staunch Republican, he is determined not to be used politically. He does not recognize until too late that his enemies are able to force him from MacHardie and Company and possibly to compromise the integrity with which he has handled his duties as assistant secretary of the Navy. Although financially secure, he ends up without a position and without purpose. After a long recovery from a hemorrhaged stomach ulcer and after Natalie gives birth to a stillborn son, he is reduced to a pitiful willingness to serve on meaningless social committees and to perform demeaning errands for his former associates.

Samuel Eaton

Samuel Eaton, Alfred’s father, a hard-nosed and unimaginative businessman. He devotes himself to the management of his steel mill. Devastated by the death of his first son, he alienates his wife and Alfred. Almost perversely, he dies on the day of Alfred’s wedding to Mary St. John.

Martha Eaton

Martha Eaton, Alfred’s mother. She reacts to Samuel’s selfish grief by becoming an alcoholic and by having affairs with a neighbor named Miller, who commits suicide, and with a Philadelphian named Frolick, whom Alfred beats. In her later years, in moments of lucidity, she accuses Alfred of being like his father.

William Eaton

William Eaton, Alfred’s older brother. He seems more readily personable and athletic than Alfred. At the age of fourteen, he dies of spinal meningitis.

Sally Eaton

Sally Eaton, Alfred’s sister. She is his confidant, keeping him informed about family matters. She marries Harry van Peltz, has several children, and is widowed at a relatively young age.

Constance Eaton

Constance Eaton, Alfred’s sister. For many years, she carries on an affair with a man who will not divorce his wife for her.

Victoria Dockwiler

Victoria Dockwiler, Alfred’s first love. A beautiful, assertive woman, she resents his attempts to monopolize her. To spite him, she goes for a drive with Peter van Peltz, and they are both killed in a wreck.

Norma Budd

Norma Budd, Alfred’s first...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)