The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Walter F. Starbuck is an antihero, a minor, inconsequential figure caught up and manipulated by greater forces. While on the outskirts of great movements—the union strikes of the 1930’s, the Nuremberg Trials, the McCarthy era, Watergate—he never plays an active or important role. He ruefully acknowledges near the end of his memoirs, “The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.” Starbuck always is a loser, a perpetual jailbird, even in a moral sense. He admits,The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me.

Yet in his self-critical, wry, and humorous narration, Starbuck creates a sense of empathy in the reader. This man is a bumbler, but he is an entertaining, likable, and somewhat poignant bumbler.

Because the novel is his autobiography, Starbuck is the most fully developed character. Vonnegut is not interested in psychological realism in Jailbird. Most of the characters remain satiric caricatures of corrupt lawyers, unemployed Ph.D.’s, and hard-hearted businessmen. Cleverly drawn with vivid, idiosyncratic detail (one...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Walter F. Starbuck

Walter F. Starbuck, born Walter Stankiewicz, a RAMJAC corporation executive and convict. The life of this sixty-four-year-old, “jockey-sized” man has been marked by unwitting mishaps. The son of poor immigrants, he is educated at Harvard by tycoon Alexander Hamilton McCone. He becomes a minor government official, marries Ruth, whom he meets in World War II, and has a son who hates him. In hearings before a committee headed by Richard Nixon, he innocently names his friend Leland Clewes as a Communist, sending him to jail. He is reviled by friends, and Ruth dies. Nixon, now president, invites him to take a White House job, and he is later jailed as a Watergate conspirator. After he is released, he meets Mary Kathleen O’Looney and becomes an officer of the RAMJAC Corporation. He hides the news of her death and suppresses her will, for which he is again jailed. Throughout, he appears as a bumbling innocent who suffers while schemers prosper.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney

Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a sixty-four-year-old bag lady who is actually Mrs. Jack Graham and owner of the conglomerate RAMJAC Corporation. She is tiny and thin, and she wears layers of filthy clothes and enormous purple tennis shoes in which she stores her most vital belongings. She hides her identity to escape those who would cut off her hands for the fingerprints that confirm her orders. While Walter was at Harvard, she was his...

(The entire section is 587 words.)