The Characters

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Margaret Walker’s preoccupation with crafting a story that, above all, tells the whole truth can be seen in her approach to characterization. In Jubilee , even the most oppressive whites are shown as individuals, with their own frustrations and their own griefs. The overseer Ed Grimes, for example, resents the...

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  • Themes
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Margaret Walker’s preoccupation with crafting a story that, above all, tells the whole truth can be seen in her approach to characterization. In Jubilee, even the most oppressive whites are shown as individuals, with their own frustrations and their own griefs. The overseer Ed Grimes, for example, resents the fact that he must spend his days in the fields with the slaves while his wealthy employer indulges his own whims. Grimes’s sense of social inferiority and his fear of the slaves under his control help to explain his willingness to join with Big Missy in torture and murder.

As for Salina herself, Margaret Walker once commented in an interview that those readers who called the woman a “monster” misunderstood the story. Given her upbringing as a young southern lady, an upbringing that denied her any knowledge of sex, Salina was conditioned to react as she did when confronted with the realities of marriage. Moreover, it is not surprising that Salina hates her husband’s offspring by another woman, slave or not. Unfortunately, the institution of slavery gives her the opportunity to vent her wrath upon the innocent child Vyry.

Although Walker wants her readers to understand the motivations of her unsympathetic characters, she also believes that one can choose to rise above a corrupt society, as Vyry manages to do. Readers who find Jubilee to be one of the most memorable historical novels set in this period often point to the spiritual grandeur of its central character. Even if Walker had not so fully revealed her protagonist’s feelings, the facts of her story alone would have shown how consistently Vyry repays injury with forgiveness. Rejected by her father, tortured by his wife, and brutally beaten after her attempt to follow her husband to freedom, Vyry has every reason to hate the white race. On occasion after occasion, however, when white people meet adversity, she aids them.

It is appropriate that at last Vyry is rewarded, that her family finds a permanent home as a result of one of her many acts of kindness. Although it is obvious that throughout the story Vyry is always motivated by her Christian faith, in How I Wrote “Jubilee” Walker also gives some credit to her character’s practical good sense, which shows her that hatred will hurt no one but herself.

Walker shows Randall Ware, too, as both a product of his background and a person who thinks for himself. Because he was born free, Ware has not had Vyry’s long training in subservience, and normally he asserts his worth, no matter who questions it. He can also be practical. When he has no other choice, he gives up some of his property to predatory whites. When he is evicted from the legislature, he turns his attention to education, which he reasons must be a source of empowerment or whites would not be so anxious to deny it to blacks.

Walker uses the privilege of an omniscient narrator to describe Randall Ware’s experiences when he is away from Vyry, but she does not penetrate Ware’s consciousness as fully as she does that of her heroine. Generally, the author simply relates Ware’s adventures, leaving readers to deduce what Ware is feeling. When he reveals his opinions in dialogue, as he does, for example, in the final chapters of the novel, it appears that he is important primarily as the spokesman for black militancy as an option for his people.

Like Vyry and like Ware, Innis Brown is to some degree a product of his environment; therefore, his indifference to education and his anger with his stepson Jim are understandable. As a field hand, he had no glimpse of the kind of life with which house servants such as Vyry were familiar. In owning his own land and his own house, he has achieved all that he could ever hope for. One can only guess at the bewilderment that Innis felt when Vyry sided with Jim and at his apprehension when Ware suddenly appeared to reclaim his wife. In the dramatic final pages, it is Vyry’s feelings that Walker reports; both Ware and Brown are left to speak for themselves.

The fact that Walker does not permit her readers a glimpse into the hearts and souls of characters so important and so sympathetic as Ware and Brown might be considered a defect in the novel. On the other hand, it may well have been a deliberate decision by the artist. By presenting everyone else somewhat hazily, Margaret Walker placed her noble heroine in a clearer focus.

The Characters

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Because Margaret Walker wishes to make the novel about her real great-grandmother Vyry a realistic picture of two decades in the South, she chooses in Jubilee to write as an omniscient author, venturing onto the Confederate battlefields and into the minds of the slave owners and tracing the adventures of Vyry’s husband, Randall Ware, when he has been assumed to be dead. Yet all the characters in Jubilee and all the events are important to Vyry, who is Walker’s admirable heroine. During slave days, Vyry is intelligent enough to survive. She learns to work hard and to avoid confrontations, particularly with Salina Dutton, who hates this slave-born offspring of her own husband even more because Vyry resembles Salina’s daughter Lillian. She learns to be skeptical of the easy promises of her white father and of the courting gestures of her admirers. As one by one her protectors vanish from her life, Vyry must depend on her own strength. During the later days of the war and the Occupation, it is Vyry’s leadership and her practical good sense which enable the surviving whites and the remaining blacks on the plantation to cope with the dangers of disease and starvation. Above all, through her living Christianity Vyry subdues hatred and bitterness, and because of a typical charitable act, she gains for her family a home and a place in the community.

Vyry’s two husbands are very different from each other. Randall Ware, the free black, is well educated and intelligent but consumed by his hatred of whites and of the white Christian God. The stable and hardworking Innis Brown lacks Vyry’s faith in education, which he sees as denying him the field help which he needs. His whipping of Vyry’s oldest boy, Jim, Randall Ware’s son, comes very close to breaking up the marriage; it is only after Innis sees Vyry’s scars that he finally understands why his own violent actions so repel her.

The aristocratic Duttons see themselves as the leaders of the plantation gentry. What his wife and the slaves see as careless irresponsibility, John Morris Dutton thinks of as ambition for leadership in a larger sphere, perhaps state office. Despite Dutton’s insistence on the concept of honor, Vyry finds that his promises mean nothing and that he is only infrequently interested in her welfare. To her plea for freedom, his answer is laughter and a patronizing explanation of how much better off she is as a slave. His daughter Lillian shares his good nature but also his weakness. Although she likes little Vyry, her playmate, she is willing to obey her mother’s orders to shun her. After the death of her husband and the destruction of the plantation, she loses her mind, perhaps from a blow on the head, but perhaps as much from weakness of character. It is Vyry who must then care for all of the children, Lillian’s as well as her own.

No one would accuse Salina Dutton (Big Missy) of weakness. Soon after her marriage, she discovers that she does not like sex or childbearing. She also discovers that her husband is indolent and ineffectual, and that therefore she must run the plantation. With the overseer Ed Grimes, she does so. She is cruel but efficient, and she is able to make a profit. During the war, as loss follows loss, she remains steadfast, sacrificing all of her funds for the Confederate cause. Only a massive stroke can destroy her, ironically, as the Yankee guns boom nearer and nearer to the plantation.

Johnny Dutton believes that he is like his mother, whose strength he admires. Perhaps he would have returned after the war to run the plantation according to her principles. He is shown, however, as a West Pointer who yearns for adventure, not for the duties and the dullness of life on a plantation. Despite his respect for his mother, he may well have inherited his father’s irresponsibility without his good nature.

Whether the descendant of slave owners or the descendant of slaves is writing an antebellum novel, the least-sympathetic character is likely to be the landless, harsh overseer. In this novel, Ed Grimes is used by Big Missy and feared by the slaves, on whom he inflicts the cruel punishments that she decrees and others of his own contrivance. Yet Margaret Walker reveals Grimes’s own feelings of social inferiority, his resentment of the Duttons, and his discontent with his own lot. It is out of this bitterness that Grimes becomes a Klan leader after the war. As with Big Missy, Walker explores the motivations of Grimes, proving that even an unsympathetic character merits understanding.

List of Characters

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Addie Barrow
Addie Barrow is one of Lillian Dutton’s best friends and the daughter of Smith Ambers Barrow.

Allen Crenshaw
Allen Crenshaw heads a family neighboring the Duttons and attends the dinner party on the Dutton plantation.

Aunt Sally
Aunt Sally is Hetta’s close friend and the slave cook in the Big House on the Dutton plantation.

Belle
Belle is one of Lillian Dutton’s best friends.

Ben
Ben is a newly purchased slave on the Dutton plantation.

Betty-Alice Fletcher
Betty-Alice Fletcher is a young white woman whom Vyry assists in delivering her first baby, Henry Fletcher, Jr, in Greenville, Alabama.

Big Boy
Big Boy is a field hand on the Dutton plantation. He is Caline’s husband but is sold and never heard from again.

Bob Qualls
Along with Randall Wheelright, the unkempt and heavily-built Bob Qualls has long been suspected of helping escaped slaves in central Georgia.

Brother Zeke
Brother Zeke is a strong, dark-skinned preacher on the Dutton plantation. He is literate and helps slaves escape to Canada. He is also called Zeke and Brother Ezekiel.

Caline
Caline is a childless slave working in the Big House on the Dutton plantation.

Clark Graves
Clark Graves attends the dinner party on the Dutton plantation.

Cooper
The Coopers are a poor white sharecropper family in Alabama.

Ed Grimes
Ed Grimes is the white plantation overseer on the Dutton plantation. He comes from a poor family and is stocky, strong, red-headed, and quick to anger.

Fanny Crenshaw
Fanny Crenshaw is one of Lillian Dutton’s best friends and the daughter of Allen Crenshaw. She has known the junior John Dutton since childhood.

Grandpa Tom
Grandpa Tom is a slave and stable keeper. He is one of the oldest slaves on the Dutton plantation.

Granny Ticey
Granny Ticey is the midwife and doctor among the slaves on the Dutton plantation.

Harry Brown
Harry Brown is the first child born to Vyry and Innis Brown. He is Vyry’s third child.

Henry Fletcher
Henry Fletcher is the young white man married to Betty-Alice Fletcher in Greenville, Alabama.

Henry Turner
Henry Turner is a very light-skinned black man who convinces Randall War, in the early Reconstruction era, to encourage black men in Dawson, Georgia, to support Ulysses S. Grant for president and even to run for office in the Georgia State Congress.

Hetta
A beautiful woman in her youth, Hetta is a dark-skinned slave and the mistress to her married white slave owner, John Morris Dutton. At age twenty-nine, she has had fifteen children, some fathered by Dutton and others by her slave husband Jake. She is also called Sis Hetta.

Hilma
Hilma is one of Lillian Dutton’s best friends.

Innis Brown
Innis Brown is a “high brown” man who is freed by the Union army, saves Vyry from an attack, stays on at the Dutton plantation, and marries Vyry.

Jack
Jack is a large, newly purchased slave who cares for a sick slave boy on the way to the Dutton plantation.

Jacobson
Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson are a wealthy, married white couple in Troy, Alabama. They hire Vyry as a cook.

Jake
Jake is Hetta’s husband on the Dutton plantation. Jake knows that she has had children by the plantation owner but suppresses his anger.

Jane Ellen
Jane Ellen is Ed Grimes’s once beautiful white wife. Like Grimes, she comes from poverty.

Jasper
Jasper is Randall Ware’s assistant blacksmith in Dawson, Georgia. He is killed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Jebusite Hendrix
Jebusite Hendrix is one of the Dutton’s nearest plantation owners. He attends the dinner party on the Dutton plantation. He is also called Jeb and has a son with the same name.

Jim
Jim is the first child of Vyry and Randall Ware. Although born into slavery, he is called James Ware by his free black father.

Jim
A second character, also named Jim, is an older slave, born in the early 1820s, who works in the Big House on the Dutton plantation, nurses the dying John Morris Dutton, and accompanies Johnny to war.

John Morris Dutton
Tall, blond, with gray-blue eyes, and in his mid-thirties at the beginning of the novel, John Morris Dutton is the owner of two plantations and a large number of slaves in central Georgia. He is also called Marster and Marse John.

Johnny
Johnny is the only son of John Morris and Salina Dutton. He is also called Young Marster John.

Kevin MacDougall
Kevin MacDougall is the bookish friend of the junior John Dutton. He courts and marries Lillian Dutton.

Lillian Dutton
Lillian Dutton is the only daughter of John Morris and Salina Dutton, the owners of the plantation on which Vyry works and lives. Lillian is Vyry’s white half-sister of nearly the same age. Both girls have straight light hair, gray-blue eyes, and light skin. Lillian is also called Missy Lillian, Miss Lillyum, and, after marriage, Mrs. Lillian MacDougall.

Lucy
Lucy is the child of the slave Jake (and probably of Hetta, although this is never stated in the novel). She works in the Big House on the Dutton plantation.

Lucy Porter
Lucy Porter is Lillian Dutton’s aunt; with her husband, she runs a store in Butler County, Georgia. She is also called Miss Lucy.

Malcolm Ezra Winston
Malcolm Ezra Winston attends the dinner party on the Dutton plantation. His boys volunteer to serve in the cavalry and fight for the Confederacy.

Mammy Sukey
Mammy Sukey lives on John Morris Dutton’s second plantation, where she cares for his mixed-race children until they are grown enough to work.

May Liza
May Liza is a slave and the “upstairs house girl” in the Big House on the Dutton plantation.

Mildred Butler
Mildred Butler is one of Lillian Dutton’s best friends. She marries the junior Jeb Hendryx.

Minna
Minna is the second child of Vyry and Randall Ware. Like her older brother, Jim, she is born into slavery.

Old Doc
Old Doc is the white doctor who treats the Dutton family, visits Hetta on her deathbed, and acts as a messenger between Randall Ware and the Ku Klux Klan in central Georgia.

Pippins
Mr. Pippins is the owner of the cabin and land in Alabama that is abandoned by the Coopers and occupied for a year by Innis Brown, Vyry, and the children.

Porter Lee Butler
Porter Lee Butler is one of the Duttons' nearest plantation owners. He attends the dinner party on the Dutton plantation. He is also called Lee.

Randall Ware
As a free, literate, property-owning, and wealthy black man, Randall Ware is not accepted by the white people in central Georgia. He is a blacksmith, has very dark skin, and is powerfully built. He is called Shady when working for the Union army.

Randall Wheelright
Randall Wheelright is a Quaker and abolitionist in central Georgia. He is Randall Ware’s white guardian.

Reverend Whittaker
Reverend Whittaker is the new black preacher and teacher in Troy, Alabama.

Rizzer
Rizzer is a newly purchased slave on the Dutton plantation.

Robert
Robert is the son of Kevin and Lillian MacDougall. He is also called Bob and Bobby.

Salina Dutton
Salina Dutton is John Morris Dutton’s white wife. She comes from an established family in Savannah. She is called Big Missy by the slaves and La Mère by her worshipful son.

Sam
Sam is a slave and Aunt Sally’s son. He drives the carriage on the Dutton plantation and doubles as butler at the Duttons' formal dinner party.

Shackelford
Mrs. Shackelford is the mother of Betty-Alice Fletcher.

Smith Ambers Barrow
Smith Ambers Barrow heads a family neighboring the Duttons and is the only banker in Terrell County, Georgia. He attends the dinner party on the Dutton plantation. He is also called Banker Barrow.

Susan
Susan is the daughter of Kevin and Lillian MacDougall.

Uncle Esau
Uncle Esau is one of the oldest slaves on the Dutton plantation.

Uncle Joe
Uncle Joe is one of the oldest slaves on the Dutton plantation.

Uncle Plato
Uncle Plato is one of the oldest slaves on the Dutton plantation.

Vyry
Rarely called by her full name (Elvira), Vyry is the youngest child of the black slave Hetta and the white slave owner John Morris Dutton. She has straight light hair, gray-blue eyes, and light skin.

Willie
Willie is a docile and slow-witted young slave on the Dutton plantation.

Characters

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Vyry

Elvira Dutton, known as Vyry, is the central character of Jubilee. She is the last live-born child of the slave Hetta and her owner, John Morris Dutton. Vyry has physical characteristics, including straight hair and light skin, that allow her to pass for White once she is away from the plantation. On the plantation, of course, her mixed-race ancestry is both an advantage and a curse. She is one of the house slaves, leading a much more comfortable life than that of a field hand, but she is also treated cruelly by Salina Dutton, her father's White wife and the mistress of the plantation.

In many ways, Vyry is the moral center of the novel. In one of the final chapters, the third-person narrator says of her that she is

the best true example of the motherhood of her race, an ever present assurance that nothing could destroy a people whose sons had come from her loins.

Indeed, one of her greatest goals in life is to have her sons and daughter learn not only the value of hard work but also the rewards of formal education. Vyry has an unswerving sense of loyalty; for example, even after Union troops have formally liberated the slaves on the plantation where she grew up, she stays on to care for Lillian Dutton, the last living member of the family of her former owners. In speaking to her oldest son, Vyry gives voice to the values that her life largely embodies:

We supposen to love everybody like God loves us. And when you forgives you feels sorry for the one what hurt you, you returns love for hate, and good for evil. And that stretches your heart and makes you bigger inside with a bigger heart, so's you can love everybody when your heart is big enough.

Vyry is not without flaws, however. Perhaps the most visible character flaw is her bias against the Black field hands, whom she sees through much of her life as inferior to house slaves or freed Blacks such as Randall Ware. Only when she comes into closer contact with field hands, shares their work, and falls in love with one of them does she begin to change her views.

Margaret Walker explains in the Dedication that the events in Vyry's life are based on the experiences of her maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown. Walker also identifies her own maternal grandmother, named Elvira Ware Dozier, as the one “who told me this story.”

John Morris Dutton

Tall and blond, with gray-blue eyes, and in his mid-thirties at the beginning of the novel, John Morris Dutton (or "Marse John") is the owner of two plantations and a large number of slaves in central Georgia. His political aspirations and rise in the state government are tracked over the course of the first two sections of the novel, as are his rapid decline and death after breaking his leg in a carriage accident. In his physical description and in his actions, John embodies the ideals of the landed gentry of the Old South. He seeks to manage his assets well, including his slaves, but he never shows any sign of parental love toward the children (including Vyry) he has had with at least one slave woman.

Salina Dutton

Salina Dutton (or "Big Missy") is John Morris Dutton’s White wife who lives with him in the Big House on one of the Dutton plantations. Perhaps embarrassed that her husband has had a number of children with at least one of his slaves, Salina tortures Vyry and other house slaves in a number of ways. In the early years of the Civil War, she struggles to maintain her lifestyle and support the war effort by investing heavily in Confederate war bonds. Witnessing the death of both husband and son and seeing the plantation fall into ruin prove to be too much. Before the war's end, Salina suffers a stroke and dies.

Lillian Dutton

Lillian is the only daughter of John Morris and Salina Dutton; she is Vyry's half-sister. Lillian and Vyry resemble one another so much physically that a wealthy White woman visiting the Big House, without meaning to offend her hostess, comments on the likeness. In many ways, Lillian embodies the ideals of the Southern belle: she dresses nicely, attends parties, is courted, enters into a respectable marriage with a young man from another plantation family, and so forth. Her life falls apart during the Civil War: her father and her husband both die and she is attacked by a stranger in her own home. Before her death, she seems to have become frozen in time, wearing outdated clothes from the pre-war era and repeating only a few sentences over and over.

Johnny Dutton

Johnny is the only son of John Morris and Salina Dutton. He seems more devoted to his mother, as Lillian seems more devoted to her father. When his mother resolves, upon the father's death, to continue to run the plantation with the help of Ed Grimes, Johnny is delighted. He wants nothing more than to leave the plantation and to attend West Point to pursue his dreams of becoming an officer in the army. Johnny is stabbed in the abdomen by a Black Union soldier; is brought home by a loyal slave, Jim; and shares a brief kiss with his sweetheart, Fanny Crenshaw, before dying.

Ed Grimes

Ed Grimes seems to possess few to no redeeming qualities, as suggested by both his last name and the description of him as pig-like: he has thick thighs "like the broad flanks of a big boar"; eyes as "small as pig eyes"; and bristly hair on his chin, nose, and ears (25–26). He is the overseer of the Dutton plantation, and he shares Salina's view that John Morris Dutton is too soft on his slaves. Grimes blames his misfortunes (including the death of his favorite dog and his wife's miscarriage) on Black devilry and whips Grandpa Tom, an old slave, to death. John Dutton also suspects Grimes of setting a fire that kills two other old slaves, Uncles Plato and Esau. As the tide turns against the Confederacy, Grimes leaves the plantation, and little more is heard of him until he appears back in central Georgia, using his ties with the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan to force Randall Ware to sell his land and move away. Grimes's wife dies in the war, and he marries the daughter of Banker Barrow. Grimes, himself, takes over the role of town banker and plots unsuccessfully to take over the Dutton plantation.

Grimes's hostility toward Black people is indirectly attributed in the novel to his own poor White background:

They [poor whites] suffered more than the black slaves for there was no one to provide them with the rations of corn meal and salt pork which was the daily lot of the slaves.

This character's success in the Reconstruction era may reflect a subtle argument in the novel (however sound or unsound) that some values of the Old South, such as noblesse oblige, produced a society that was better than the one that followed it.

Randall Ware

Randall Ware is a free, dark-skinned Black man who works as a blacksmith near the Dutton plantation. John Morris Dutton will not permit Randall to marry Vyry because the marriage would free her from slavery; thus, the two "jump the broom" and are married by the local Black preacher, Brother Zeke, in a slave marriage. Before being driven out of Georgia by anti-Black sentiment, he convinces Vyry to attempt an escape, in which she fails. Randall believes firmly in the role of education in uplifting the Black race. He finally succeeds in tracking down Vyry and, failing to reclaim her as his wife, he takes his son, Jim, with him.

Innis Brown

Innis Brown is a Black man who enters Vyry's life at the end of the Civil War, rescuing her from attackers and then staying on to work the fields on the Dutton plantation. He repeatedly asks her to marry him until she accepts. He travels with her from central Georgia to Alabama, trying and failing several times to establish a house and home. They have a child together, whom they name Harry. When Randall resurfaces, the two argue. Innis expresses his skepticism about the need for education, and he and Randall part on good terms.

Jim Ware

Jim Ware, the first child of Vyry and Randall Ware, is alive through much of the story but only develops as a character in his own near the end of the novel. His strongest characteristic is his reluctance to work, particularly when driven to do so by his stepfather, Innis Brown. His biological father, Randall Ware, returns in the final chapters of the novel, and Jim leaves with him to pursue his education.

Minna Ware

Minna Ware, the second child of Vyry and Randall Ware, never plays an important role in the story. She is mostly a foil to her brother Jim; in contrast to him, she is calm, content, and eager to work. As the novel ends, however, the focus shifts to her character. The Dedication indicates that Minna can be seen as the fictional representation of Margaret Walker’s own maternal grandmother.

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