Joe Trace, a middle-aged salesman, gains the reader’s sympathy despite his seemingly perfidious acts that begin the novel. A charming, avuncular man, trusted in his community, Joe nevertheless takes an eighteen-year-old girl as his mistress. He drifts into this unsavory behavior because of his wife’s emotional withdrawal and his own midlife melancholy, but also because he sees Dorcas as a needy, vulnerable girl whom he wants, in his own odd way, to protect. The reader feels sorry for Joe in the flashback passages when he is tracking Wild, his inaccessible mother; despite his grimmer purpose, Joe’s tracking of Dorcas, when he has lost control of their relationship and of himself, retains some of that pathos from earlier in his life.
Violet Trace is a fifty-year-old hairdresser who is hardworking but subject to spells of emotional derangement. The reader’s attitude toward Violet shifts from shock over her desperate violence at Dorcas’s funeral to sympathy when one learns of the traumas of Violet’s past, particularly her mother’s suicide. Ironically, after striking out in hate against Dorcas’s corpse, Violet then becomes preoccupied with the life of the dead teenager. Fortunately, Violet finds Alice Manfred to be the kind of caring maternal figure that Violet has missed having in her life, and with Alice’s help, Violet regains her emotional balance.
Dorcas, the catalyst for the most violent acts in the novel, is viewed differently by different characters. The narrator presents her as an emotionally damaged adolescent who chases the thrills of Harlem to escape her painful past, while on a deeper level she...
(The entire section is 673 words.)