List of Characters

Narrator—unnamed. Moves in and out of the story.

Violet Trace—The main character, a hairdresser. She has been married to Joe Trace for 20 years. She has trouble holding on to her husband and her sanity. When her husband shoots his lover, Violet is thrown out of the funeral for trying to disfigure the corpse’s face.

Joe Trace—A main character, the husband of Violet, a cosmetics salesman. He has named himself Trace because he can find no trace of his mother.

Dorcas Manfred—The 18-year-old girl that Joe falls in love with. She is being raised by her aunt Alice Manfred because her parents were killed in racial incidents. Her only interest is to explore her sexuality.

Wild—Joe Trace’s mother. She could not speak and lived almost like an animal in the cane fields. Joe was hurt that she could never care for him or acknowledge him as a child.

Golden Gray—A white-skinned man whose blood is half black. He is named for the color of his eyes. As a child, he was cared for by Violet’s grandmother, True Belle. His mother is Vera Louise Gray and his father is Henry Lestory. When he finds out his father is black, he vows to kill him.

Rose Dear—Violet Trace’s mother. The pressures of trying to provide for her children lead her to commit suicide by throwing herself down a well.

True Belle—Violet’s grandmother, Rose Dear’s mother. She comes to the rescue of the family when they are penniless. She also raised Joe’s father, Golden Gray


(The entire section is 634 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Morrison chose to present the story of Joe, Violet, and the others through a narrator who is seemingly all-knowing though by no means objective. She is in everybody’s business not simply because she is nosy or wants to interfere but because she needs to understand people, their past, their circumstances, and their relationships. She tries to reveal the truth. She will also admit when she has had to imagine the truth, when she has fallen short in presenting it, and when she has failed. An individual’s truth is not easily discernible, and it is not apparent all at once. It also contradicts. Therefore, the narrator’s explanation of the events dominating the lives of a few people on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue during the first three months of 1926 requires an account of recent history, music, magazines, newspapers, and hairstyles.

Although Joe Trace is a murderer, he is drawn sympathetically. The neighborhood women trust the door-to-door cosmetics salesman to come into their homes, to escort them home at night, and to warn the young ones of city dangers. He is their neighbor, their friend. Everyone knows that Joe killed Dorcas, but because no one saw him do it, because Dorcas’s aunt, Alice Manfred, knows the futility of calling white policemen to investigate a black girl’s murder, and because Joe has suffered so, he goes unprosecuted. Joe Trace does not conform to the violent urban stereotype. His strong back and keen knowledge of nature helped him survive in rural Virginia and gave him and his wife a poor but happy life. In coming to the City, Joe climbed the rungs of the ladder available to African American men. His desire to regain young loving and to fill the void left by his mother, who refused to touch his hand in the Vesper County woods, and by his silent wife, causes him to lose control of himself and his life.

Understanding Violet is just as difficult. The fifty-year-old woman readers see at the novel’s beginning, one who drinks malteds laced with Dr. Dee’s Nerve and Flesh Builder in an attempt to regain her long-lost hips and who is called...

(The entire section is 850 words.)