The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The only fully developed character is Cecil, and even the picture of him is fragmented. What one can say directly of him is that he is a very intelligent and sensitive young African American who is troubled by his situation in a racist culture and haunted by the death of Simon. What readers do not know is why, four years after receiving his law degree and a year and a half after returning to his wife, Esther, he is still working as a janitor at the Banbury Street Arms when the novel opens.

Several things are bothering him on November 14, 1968, when his story begins. November is a month that always brings him bad news: He is now plagued by hemorrhoids; his dead son, Simon, had been conceived in November; and Esther’s Aunt Fanny had come to live with them in November. There is no clue about what has happened to Cecil in the eighteen months since his return from his European exile. Certainly a man with a prestigious law degree would be expected to have a better job than one as janitor at the Banbury Street Arms. There are no clues to this mystery, and readers are left with a sense that Cecil has become an invisible man because of his skin color.

When Cecil first appears, he is collecting trash in the Banbury Street Arms: “Five floors, fifteen apartments each left their bundles on the back stairs for Cecil to carry away.” He picks up an empty Carnation evaporated milk can, crushes it in his hand, and drops it five floors to the basement. The...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cecil’s initials, when reversed (B.O.C.), recall the name of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose work Cecil admires in the Prado. Indeed, Cecil imagines himself with the damned figures in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, reveling in “greediness and absurdity rather than an orderly, calm progress toward salvation.” His instability results from his anxiousness to find a heritage. He is at once an upwardly mobile black fast becoming isolated from the neighborhood where he grew up, a son of Africa severed from the motherland, and an American vaguely aware of a European birthright. Wideman thus sets him in a Prufrockan world pressed by time’s passage and unanswered questions, inhabited by people as catlike and ragged-claw red as the images in T. S. Eliot’s famous poem.

Esther differs from Cecil in that she is grounded unwaveringly by her belief in God. Yet she is a sick saint whose self-negation is repulsive instead of awe-inspiring. She views her troubled marriage as a divine mission: Cecil is the saint while she is the unsteady sinner being tested for her patience and humility. She has married Cecil knowing that he does not love her, hoping that real union will soon come to pass. She bears his scorn and physical abuse as if the blows were thunderclaps from the hand of God Himself. In this way Wideman succeeds in depicting her as a reversal of the biblical Esther who saved the Jews from annihilation by the Persians. Esther Brown...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Cecil Otis Braithwaite

Cecil Otis Braithwaite, a black janitor in his thirties. Cecil was only the second black man to receive a law degree from his college. On the night of his graduation, he marries Esther, who supported him through law school. He was a man of dreams, but his hopes have been dashed. After deserting Esther on their wedding night, he spends three years traveling in Europe. He returns to his former life and does not change it but merely sinks further into his depression, caused by the state of his race, his alienation—because of his race—from the type of life he wants to lead, and the miscarriage of his and Esther’s child.

Esther Brown Braithwaite

Esther Brown Braithwaite, Cecil’s wife. Esther has sacrificed her life to Cecil because she believes that he has been chosen by God for greatness. She slaves in the Branbury Arms at Cecil’s janitorial job while he is in school, while he is away, and after he returns, hoping to help her husband in some way.

Aunt Fanny

Aunt Fanny, Esther’s elderly aunt. She lives with Esther and Cecil and is completely dependent on them. She remembers a time when she was needed by her husband and sons.

Uncle Otis

Uncle Otis, Cecil’s uncle. He is an old man and a fixture in the neighborhood. In Cecil’s mind, he literally keeps the lamppost on which he leans from falling over.


(The entire section is 402 words.)