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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

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...

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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 Gillespie are thinking but withholding Virgil’s mind until the final third of In the Heat of the Night. Although Virgil often chooses to act in accordance with the racial prejudices of Wells, he dislikes it. At other times—such as during his interview with Delores Purdy—he uses the racism of Wells to his advantage.

Virgil is a perceptive man and often makes deductions worthy of Sherlock Holmes. In contrast to the white police officers of Wells, Virgil is not arrogant, he is well trained, and he is open-minded. He is able to successfully defend his life against two attackers using judo, a system of defense that he informs Sam was not learned from a white man. In many ways, Virgil personifies the antithesis of the stereotypical African American that Sam and Gillespie envision. He is kind, intelligent, and capable. Ironically, although Sam and Gillespie are investigators, hired to notice things that other people ignore, they have lived their entire lives blinded to the possibility that blacks could be anything other than what the whites of Wells assumed.

Bill Gillespie

Bill Gillespie is the Chief of Police in Wells. He was born in Texas, and he is unqualified for his job. He was a jailer before coming to Wells and has received no formal training. Instead, he believes that his instinct is sufficient, which leads him to wrongfully arrest several people—including his own police officer, Sam Wood—during the course of In the Heat of the Night. Gillespie is not very subtle, which perhaps is related to his intimidating size and strength, which he often uses to bully people into doing as he wishes. Gillespie correctly believes that his job could be taken from him at any time. In spite of his lack of experience, Gillespie was hired because he was from the South and would not bring progressive ideas about race relationships to Wells.

Gillespie, who is prejudiced against blacks, does not like Tibbs and does not want his help. He only accepts Tibbs’s help because the black man could serve as a scapegoat if the murder goes unsolved. Gillespie is very confident that he can solve the murder without any help by following set routines. Ironically, Gillespie does not know any set routines. It is not until the investigation is nearly over that the Police Chief begins to research how to investigate a murder, and only then does he realize how skillful Tibbs is. However, he still does not respect Tibbs—and he certainly does not consider Tibbs his equal. In reality, Tibbs is a vastly superior officer and investigator, but Gillespie’s stubborn prejudice prevents him from realizing it.

By the end of the novel, Gillespie begins to overcome his prejudice. He acknowledges Virgil’s skill and gives him credit in front of Wells’s leaders for solving the murder. However, when Gillespie accompanies Tibbs to the railroad station at the end of the novel, he refuses to shake Tibbs’s hand, reflecting that having shaken his hand once was enough and that to do it again might be “wrong.” This ending suggests that although Tibbs has changed the attitudes about race held by some of Wells’s residents, Gillespie represents the deep-rooted prejudice of the South. It will not be easily overcome.

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