In the Heat of the Night Characters

John Ball


Sam Wood

The majority of In the Heat of the Night is told from Officer Sam Wood’s perspective. Although Sam is ostensibly a respected police officer, he is insecure about his authority. He prefers to be called “Mr. Wood” and revels in the fact that he is physically bigger than most people are. Sam has good intentions and he does his best to be a good policeman; he studies police manuals to make up for his lack of official training. Although he does not like Chief Gillespie, Sam is always mindful of his superior’s orders and expectations.

Like most of the residents of Wells, Sam is very prejudiced, and he firmly believes in segregating blacks from whites. When he first meets Virgil Tibbs, Sam assumes that he is the murderer solely on the evidence that Tibbs is a black outsider. When Virgil’s name is cleared, Sam finds himself impressed by Virgil’s training as an investigator, but he always insists that Virgil act as the inferior officer and as the inferior person. Sam does not like it when Virgil calls him “Sam” rather than “Mr. Wood.” Ironically, Sam is determined not to investigate the root of his prejudice against blacks.

When Virgil proves Sam’s innocence, thus securing his release, Sam begins to respect the black investigator. Ball highlights this change when Sam returns to the diner. Rather than engaging in racist discussions of blacks, he orders Virgil food and demands that he be served, though Ralph is disgusted by the idea of serving an African American. At the start of the novel, Sam believes that blacks are a separate race from whites, more akin to animals than humans and with a decreased ability to feel pain, which for him explains why there are many successful black boxers. However, by the end of the novel, he is willing to ask Virgil about these things and quickly finds himself overcoming his prejudices.

Virgil Tibbs

Virgil is an expert homicide investigator visiting Wells from Pasadena, California. An outsider in Wells, Virgil is uncomfortable having to behave obsequiously before the prejudiced whites. Ball uses narrative voice to emphasize the extent to which Virgil is an outsider by providing the reader with insights into what Sam and Bill...

(The entire section is 926 words.)