Harriet Said Characters
by Beryl Bainbridge

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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The narrator is a curiously weak individual. She allows herself to be driven by her friend Harriet to commit acts of increasing anger and violence, yet on her own she acts passively and as one would expect a thirteen-year-old girl to behave. Her curiosity about sex and the power of her sexuality is not unusual, nor are her shallow infatuation and fantasizing about the much older Peter Biggs. Even a diary such as the two girls keep is unremarkable for girls in early adolescence. Beryl Bainbridge captures a thirteen-year-old’s personality well in her use of the first-person narrative and presents an accurate picture of the girls’ parents and of the Biggses as seen through adolescent eyes. In some ways, the narrator is the dullest character in the story, acting primarily as the medium through which Harriet’s plans are carried out.

Harriet’s, on the other hand, is truly a frightening personality. The anger she feels toward adults, and toward men in particular, is apparent in her behavior toward her father and Biggs, not to mention the Italian soldiers or the young man with whom she had some sort of physical relationship earlier that same summer. Her relationship with her father is stormy, reflecting the tempestuous nature of her parents’ marriage. Thus, her behavior toward the men in the novel could be explained as her attempt to control or dominate men, all of whom represent her moody, explosive father. Her use of her sexual attractiveness to tease interested males rather than to satisfy them—as she did with Douglas Hind, Biggs’s houseguest—demonstrates her anger at, or hatred of, men. At fourteen—one year older than the narrator—she is the dominant figure in this friendship, and she controls the narrator in much the same way that she controls everyone else, by virtue of her angry will. Perhaps her attitude concerning love best expresses her nature: She tells the narrator that, “at thirteen there is very little you can expect from loving someone but experience.” Now she can also add killing to her list of experiences.

Peter Biggs is a pathetic man of fifty-six. He is a mousy, little white-collar worker married to a fat harpy. For his entire life he has allowed himself to be told what to do, so it is hardly surprising that he surrenders so easily to the flirtations of the two girls. He has been married for thirty years to a woman who won their house in a raffle; he married her because the house needed to be occupied. Over time, Mrs. Biggs has grown fat and angry; she dominates her husband with the bulk of her aggressive will as well as with her greater size. The scene in their parlor in which she forces him to have sex with her exemplifies the way in which she has overwhelmed him. Something in the narrator’s youthful sexuality arouses Biggs, and he is too weak to turn away from an obviously destructive attraction. His weakness not only causes his wife’s death but also enables Harriet to pin her murder on him.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, a thirteen-year-old middle-class English girl. Home for the summer from the boarding school to which she has been sent as a “problem child,” she resumes her interrupted friendship with a neighbor girl, Harriet, whom she admires and to whom she feels inferior. Plain and heavyset, she is flattered when a married man in their seashore town, Mr. Biggs, shows a sexual interest in her. Under Harriet’s guidance, she plots the seduction of this man, toward whom she has ambivalent feelings of fascination and disgust. She is vaguely repelled by his physical evidences of middle age and reacts with contempt at his fear and helplessness when they are locked in a church one night. Several nights later, however, she allows him to consummate their relationship on a deserted dune. Her indifference toward his feelings and her possibly destructive effect on him parallels her curiously detached attitude toward her parents, toward whom she admits an inability to feel love. Two weeks before...

(The entire section is 1,142 words.)