The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rainsford Chan, the narrator and main character of the novel, reveals the process of his struggle for identity as he lets the reader know his thoughts. His development occurs rather quickly as readers realize, rather instantly, that he is “American” in every way. Only Rainsford himself is unaware of this. Moreover, as he tells of events and episodes in his family history, it is clear that other family members before him have already made the transition. Rainsford’s struggle and characterization is understood by the reader not so much through his actions (he does little more than drive around in his car at night, and he seldom engages in conversation) as through his thoughts about the past.

Rainsford’s father is dead, and they never knew each other as adults. Fixed only and eternally in memory, the father nevertheless exerts tremendous influence on the youth. “Bobby,” which is a mispronunciation of “Daddy” by Rainsford as a toddler, is the only character in the work to have a name (except Rainsford himself). Bobby, it is recalled, had spent much time with Rainsford when he was young; the things the child remembers all reflect the father’s overt intention to Americanize his son. Through teaching him American games, songs, and traditions, the father effectually denies the Chinese heritage of the family.

Of all these unnamed, dead characters, Rainsford’s grandfather is perhaps of most importance. Again, the reader, like the narrator himself, knows little of the grandfather’s actual life. Perhaps the most significant fact is that the grandfather had once returned to China but then...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rainsford Chan

Rainsford Chan, a fourth-generation Chinese American, named for the town in California where his great-grandfather settled during the Gold Rush. It is through his eyes exclusively that the novel is told. The evocative, elusive narrative consists of interwoven flashbacks recalled by Rainsford as an adult. For most of the novel, he is having a difficult adolescence, marked by the death of his father and, eight years later, that of his mother. These losses are complicated with issues of racial identity: Although he was born in Wyoming and lived in Berkeley, people keep asking him where he is from “originally,” expecting “Hong Kong” for an answer because of his Asian features. At one point in the novel, Rainsford shamefully compares being a Chinese American to being a mutant. As a seven-year-old on Guam, Rainsford often goes to outdoor movies with his parents and keeps company with the many sailors on the island. His father gives him a Charlie McCarthy puppet that Rainsford calls “Freddy.” With it, Rainsford and his mother practice English and Chinese words. As the only Chinese student in an all-white high school, he letters five times in sports and is voted the most valuable player. His daydreams about committing heroic acts help him develop self-esteem and counteract the racial slurs he often experiences. His habit of dreaming helps him to claim a place in life.

“The Body,”

“The Body,” the image that stands for all of America to Rainsford. He calls this illusory, blond-haired,...

(The entire section is 640 words.)