The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central character, Bob Jones, is an educated black man who seeks success in a cruel, unjust, racist world, a world that defines him as a “nigger.” Bob is an idealist trapped in a world that negates idealism. In his pursuit of the American Dream, he learns that black men are blocked from every direction and that his visions of success can be achieved only if he accepts himself as defined by society, a nigger. Refusing to accept that identity, Bob strikes back and is progressively destroyed. Yet at the same time, pressures force him to respond by acting in the way society expects. Bob becomes violent, an act of self-assertion that, for him, is the only way he can regain a sense of manhood. For his violence, he is defeated at every step. Bob Jones’s difficulty rests in his unexplainable desire for Madge, one mingled with hatred and repulsion, and in his ambivalence toward his own race. His terror stems from his powerlessness, his inability to find an appropriate stance from which to fight. Thus Bob is trapped, in part, by his own weakness. The redeeming feature and one that makes him a memorable character is his anger. Poised and generally self-confident, Bob willingly moves into battle; although the pressures are deadly, he remains resilient. He is forced to enlist in the army; although the American Dream excludes him, the concluding sentence affirms his strength: “I’m still here.”

Alice Harrison, Bob’s fiancé, is beautiful, wealthy, and highly respected in her career, but she is a victim....

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Robert (Bob) Jones

Robert (Bob) Jones, an intelligent and articulate black man. He works as a foreman at the Atlas Shipyard in Los Angeles during World War II. Because the work is defense-related, he has a deferment from the military draft. He recognizes all too pointedly that, despite his obvious ability to perform his job and despite his credentials, including two years of college, he is resented by many, if not most, of the whites at the shipyard. He becomes desperate to have the color of his skin ignored, yet he is too perceptive to have any faith in his becoming anything more than a token black employee. His desperation becomes evident in his angry, reckless driving to and from his job at the shipyard; in his nightmares, which feature chained dogs, crippled blacks, and derisively laughing whites; and in his increasingly strained relations with his fiancée, Alice Harrison.

Alice Harrison

Alice Harrison, Bob’s fiancée. Alice is a social worker and lives at home with her very respectable parents. She admires her father, who is a doctor, and she accepts without question her parents’ belief that for black people to succeed, they must adapt themselves to the slow progress toward integration and full equality with whites. She and her social-worker friends have a complacent faith in the value of college education for African Americans. Because she can pass as white, she does not appreciate the immediate bigotry that Bob often experiences because he is clearly black. She seems attracted to Bob because of his intelligence and because his anger represents a challenge to shape his views to her own. When he telephones her after escaping arrest, she is willing to believe that he has raped a white woman. In effect, his arrest is in itself too much of a loss of respectability for her to accept.

Madge Perkins

Madge Perkins, Bob’s colleague. Clearly bigoted in her refusal to work under Bob, she is also perversely bigoted in her attempt to seduce him. She recognizes his latent fear of being found in any sort of compromising position with a white woman. Her accusation of rape is a transparent attempt to keep what little dignity she has in her dreary life.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bob is tormented by severe racial anxiety. When he is awake, he shares with readers his obsession with the treatment he receives at the hands of white people, ranging from his supervisors and policemen to coworkers and waiters. This narration presents a man at war with his society, wavering between uncontrollable fear and boundless rage. Bob is at war with himself as well, not knowing whether he wants to accommodate himself to the injustices of a discriminatory society or exist in a permanent, perhaps self-destructive, state of social rebellion.

Bob’s dreams help to convey the psychological depth of his anxiety. In his dreams, he and other African Americans are constantly being tricked and trapped by diabolical whites, sometimes fighting back but never winning, never quite beating the system. These dreams express Bob’s anxiety in a series of haunting images and also indicate its inescapable nature. Even sleep provides no refuge.

Together, Bob’s waking narrative and dreams portray a bright, ambitious, and confused young man. Although intelligent and articulate, Bob is ravaged by fear and indecision. He is made cynical by his very idealism and by the failure of his country to live up to its professed ideals.

The other characters are conveyed through Bob’s eyes. Alice clearly recognizes Bob’s talent and spirit. Her love seems sincere, but she believes that Bob’s failure to accommodate himself to America’s racist (but...

(The entire section is 511 words.)