The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The characters of Heat and Dust are carefully designed and arranged to counterpoint and reflect one another, and this artful arrangement of characters is one of the novel’s most impressive achievements. Douglas Rivers, for example, is the very model of a “proper Englishman” in India: ambitious, absolutely dedicated to Indian service, but absolutely aloof from the Indian population he serves and the native culture of the country to which he has been assigned. His opposite is the “weak” Harry, the Nawab’s three-year houseguest, infirm of body and spirit, contaminated by Indian indulgence, and either unwilling or unable to extricate himself from the Nawab’s influence, even though he apparently wants to return to England. Olivia is Harry’s female counterpart, caught between two worlds and two cultures and strongly influenced by the Nawab’s charm and charisma. Since Douglas clearly “did not like Harry,” he could only be horrified by full knowledge of his wife’s behavior and attachment to the Nawab.

Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Minnies are strong and “proper” official wives, determined to be “bright and cheerful,” and, like their husbands, aloof from Indian life and culture. Their counterpart is the sick Mrs. Saunders, who lives in fear of being molested by her Indian servants. Like Harry, she is “weak” and sickly, but her weakness draws her to European rather than Indian standards. She lacks the strength and the willpower to be “cheerful” about her lot. She despises India.

In the framing story, Chid is the equivalent of Harry, caught between two cultures, but...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Olivia Rivers

Olivia Rivers, a young Englishwoman recently married, living in Satipur in 1923. Bored with the company of other English officials and their wives and neglected by Douglas, her hardworking husband, Olivia is also uncomfortable with the foreignness of India itself. Over a period of several months, she becomes romantically involved with the Nawab, the local native Indian ruler. When she becomes pregnant, she has an abortion because she is not sure whether her husband or the Nawab is the father of the child. After leaving her husband, she remains in India as the mistress of the Nawab, dying in the late 1950’s without ever returning to England.


Anne, an Englishwoman in her late twenties who narrates Olivia’s story. The granddaughter of Douglas Rivers and his second wife, Tessie, Anne goes to India in the 1970’s to discover the story of her grandfather’s first wife. Through her diary, Anne also relates her own life in India. Like Olivia, Anne becomes pregnant, but after initially choosing an abortion, she decides instead to have the child. She follows Olivia’s life to the house in the Himalayas bought for her by the Nawab. At the close, Anne, nearing the time for her own delivery, has decided to join an ashram even higher in the mountains.

Douglas Rivers

Douglas Rivers, a young, dedicated English official serving in India as his ancestors had done before him. Upright and controlled, taking a paternal attitude toward the Indians, Douglas is the pillar around which Olivia’s changing feelings revolve. After Olivia’s desertion, Douglas obtains a divorce and marries Tessie, a sister of Beth Crawford. After Indian independence, he retires to England, where he dies.

The Nawab

The Nawab, a local Indian prince and ruler of Khatm. About thirty-five years old, the Nawab is married, but his wife suffers from mental illness. Although outwardly generous, the Nawab is self-centered, and he generally gets whatever he desires. He becomes for Olivia the romantic, all-consuming figure that her nature needs. He lavishes attention on her and enjoys her company in the...

(The entire section is 894 words.)