The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

John Kemp is crammed with facts and prepared for the scholarship examination a year ahead of time by his teacher, Mr. Crouch. He is the wrong age, the wrong class, and at Oxford at the wrong time. His retreat into fantasy is a way of controlling reality by inventing a world. Reality, however, keeps imposing itself on John’s defenses: Jill comes to life, his hometown is bombed, he is thrown into a fountain. He has left his home and past behind, but he is not yet a part of Oxford. His character is defined by these opposites, but rather than choose one over the other, he suddenly sees that the differences are only apparent.

Christopher Warner is a stereotypical Oxford “hearty”; he is public-school and middle-class and is interested only in drinking and playing sports. He seems to believe that he can exploit whomever he chooses. He copies John’s English notes and essays, and borrows money from his cronies. Oxford seems to be a social playground to him rather than an intellectual experience. His move to London with a mistress at the end of the novel suggests an enlargement of his horizons and, in contrast to John, a perfect adaptation to his environment.

Gillian is a minor character, but she assumes a symbolic importance in the novel. She seems to be a typical middle-class schoolgirl with a natural desire to get closer to the Oxford world. The reader never knows what she is thinking, and she does not change. What changes is John’s perception of her. She is inflated into the ideal by John and then reveals herself to be human and real.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Kemp

John Kemp, an undersized eighteen-year-old student at the University of Oxford. Kemp is physically undistinguished except for his silky hair. Kemp begins his career as an undergraduate reading English but is self-conscious and shy. Pressured into testing early for a scholarship, he is frightened and insecure about leaving his working-class home of Huddlesford in northern England. His isolation is intensified when he meets his roommate, Christopher Warner, a crass and worldly public school graduate. Afraid of having no companions, Kemp attempts to imitate students from a higher social class, but his repeated social failures prompt Kemp to become a fantasizer. He creates Jill, an imaginary sister, and embellishes a fantasy life for her until he meets a young woman who appears to be the actual Jill. His pursuit of the real girl ends in disaster when he drunkenly attempts to kiss her and is dunked in a school fountain. Kemp ends the semester in the college infirmary, sick with pneumonia and accepting the death of his love for Jill.

Christopher Warner

Christopher Warner, Kemp’s brash rugby-playing roommate. Taller and stronger than Kemp, Warner is a drinker and a womanizer who manipulates his friends and borrows their possessions. He selfishly breaks open a case of Kemp’s tea china before Kemp arrives and in a later episode asks Kemp to leave the room so that he can seduce Elizabeth Dowling.

Elizabeth Dowling

Elizabeth Dowling, Warner’s broad-shouldered girlfriend. Her hair is brushed up from the sides of her head and resembles a helmet. Hypocritical and condescending to Kemp, she falsely flatters him when he sports an unattractive blue bow tie with white dots.


Whitbread, another northern scholar like Kemp. Physically repulsive, Whitbread has a pale, stubbly head and wears steel-rimmed spectacles. Imbued...

(The entire section is 791 words.)