Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
Joel, a thirty-year-old naturalist. He is married and teaches at a small college in the United States. Presumably, he is American, although the patina of his speech is British, sprinkled with phrases such as “jolly well.” He is on a steamship bound from the eastern coast of Africa for the Suez Canal by way of the Red Sea, and he is returning from field research in Kenya. He converses at great length with an Anglican priest. His discourse on the Kamongo, a lungfish on the verge of extinction, is followed by his elaboration on Darwinian notions of evolution and his defense of scientific inquiry as superior to religious faith. He rejects the priest’s suggestion that evolution is a divinely ordained progression toward perfection and insists that it is essentially a haphazard movement in an arena of chance in which many of Nature’s experiments fail. The lungfish, for example, overspecialized the lung that enabled it to survive for years at a time out of water, encased in dried mud and nurtured by its own bodily fuels; it did not become ambulatory by developing legs. Joel explains that the eel-shaped fish, with its massive-jawed, flat-toothed, snakelike head, can grow to a length of seven feet but can drown in water unless it surfaces regularly and can survive out of water only in what becomes a comatose state; as such, it is the closest living form “to the extinct link between the fishes and the first land animals” and is one of Nature’s many failed experiments.
An Anglican priest
An Anglican priest, whom Joel calls “Padre.” He is about thirty-three years old, huge, and muscular. He objects to the idea of Nature’s failed experiments and argues that humans are not evolutionary beasts with specialized brains and that their innate desires for spiritual satisfaction prove the existence of a divine agent that can satisfy those desires. He agrees with Joel on the idea that life is unique and wills its own persistence in the universe, but whereas Joel sees physical characteristics as merely the debris that life, like a whirlpool, picks up in its resistance to the river of nonliving, he, the priest, identifies life’s will to live as the will of God. He concedes, finally, that he himself may be an experiment, trying, in his missionary efforts, one of a number of ways of living “in order to keep alive.” As he and Joel part, Joel is bemused at his concession and at his remaining secure in his faith; Joel remains satisfied with the inexplicable mystery of “the pulse of life.”
Van Wernigen, who is mentioned by Joel in his conversation with the priest. He is a dentist and, as secretary to the Kenya and Uganda Scientific Society, a very competent and enthusiastic naturalist. Joel identifies him as an inspiration to himself in his own research.
Oworogwada, who is mentioned by Joel. He is a native chief with a “thirty-odd”-year-old son and a grandson. He brings Joel a Kamongo in a container of eight inches of water, in which the fish, netted and unable to surface, has drowned.
The prison superintendent
The prison superintendent, who is mentioned by Joel as having supplied a half-dozen live lungfish.
The engineer in charge of the Public Works Department
The engineer in charge of the Public Works Department, who is mentioned by Joel as having provided him with leads in his quest for lungfish.
The narrator, a third-person, unnamed, unobtrusive nonparticipant in the action. The narrator is important in providing setting and details, such as the survival of the fit Joel and priest while six others aboard the Dumbea, including two Lascar stokers, succumb to the oppressive heat during the first week of the two-week voyage.