The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The unnamed narrator is the elusive protagonist of this novel. Although the novel follows him through adolescence and young manhood, readers discover nothing about his sex life, apart from an allusion to someone he is not reconciled to losing and a reference to the nights of the wide bed, now over. Such evasions are characteristic of his presentation of self throughout the novel. If he seems in such respects to evade readers of the novel, it may be that he is following a project of evasion throughout the novel itself. As a young black man, he finds that others, black and white, are always ready to define him, and he is unwilling to live within the limits of other people’s definitions. He sometimes turns others’ compulsion to define to his own interest, as when he slips into a role prescribed by one of society’s scenarios, but he never commits himself to any role he tries on. Ironically, his determination to distance himself from stereotypes, for example by ostentatiously carrying a highbrow journal when he rides the subway, threatens to distance him as well from any possibility of developing an authentic self. His recognition of this irony and his acceptance of what his elusiveness may have cost him indicate the level of maturity he is approaching as the novel comes to an end.

What this narrator does best is observe, but his powers of observation are for some time baffled by his grandfather, who is second in importance only to the narrator himself...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

High Cotton is replete with interesting characters, some developed only in brief sketches, others at more length. They are described directly, through the eyes of the narrator, who is marvelously observant and witty.

The narrator is characterized indirectly, primarily through his allusive language and wry tone. Otherwise, he is prone to be coy rather than confessional, at least about some aspects of his life. For example, readers learn nothing about his love life; in fact, the word “neuter” might best describe him, since the only principle he seems to represent is opportunism. He seems to have no strong commitments to any values or persons, including himself. Rather, he is in the process of finding himself, undergoing a prolonged adolescence supported by indulgent parents who send him checks even after he is graduated from college.

Once the narrator gets into a confessional mode, however, no one can be harder on himself. He acknowledges that for most of his life he has been “out of it,” that his indifference to the “old-timers” and the heritage they represent was “like a camouflage maneuver, a prolongation of the adolescent lament that I wasn’t real but everyone else was. . . .” He finally accepts his “responsibility to help my people, to honor the race.” In this sense, the whole book is a confession, an expiation, a modern rime of the ancient mariner (now become the black artist as a young man).


(The entire section is 508 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, who is based on the author. An astute observer of others, the narrator is determined to escape any pigeonhole, racial or other, into which others might be tempted to place him.

Grandfather Eustace

Grandfather Eustace, a graduate of Brown and Harvard who, after several business failures, becomes a minister of the Congregational church. He is the member of the narrator’s family with whom the narrator has the most complex and intense relationship.

Aunt Clara

Aunt Clara, who lives in Opelika, Alabama. She is actually the narrator’s mother’s aunt. She is light-skinned, or “high yellow,” and obsessed with blood mixture.

Uncle Castor

Uncle Castor, a jazz musician, who played with Noble Sissle. He has fallen on such hard times that he must depend on the hospitality of the narrator’s family.


Jesse, a security guard at Columbia University. He guides the narrator to parts of Harlem that are outside the normal itinerary of Columbia students.


Jeanette, an alcoholic singer the narrator comes to know in Harlem.

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes, an actual historical figure who wrote Nightwood (1936), one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American literary modernism. By the time the narrator works for her as a handyman, that accomplishment is far in the past.


Bargetta, who, like the narrator, is a member of the Also Chosen. He is the narrator’s friend at college and his guide to Paris.