The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Kate Vaiden recounts her first-person narrative partly as a means of dealing with her tortured past and partly as a rehearsal of what she will tell her long-lost son, Lee. Price presents Kate as a woman who fears intimacy, who runs from commitment. The people young Kate admits into her life and emotions die: her parents, Gaston Stegall, and Douglas Lee. In her convoluted way, she feels guilt for these deaths. Life for her is easier if she strikes out on her own and shrinks from intimacy, because intimacy— even platonic closeness—threatens her. People are drawn to Kate, but as a part of her self-protective mechanism, she eventually must shun them.

Aunt Caroline Porter is extremely interesting. She is a saintly woman but nobody’s fool. She always steps into the breach when she is needed. She rears the orphaned Kate, she sees Kate through her pregnancy, and she ultimately rears Kate’s child. On the surface, she seems self-sacrificing, but underlying her actions is deep-seated guilt. Caroline has some inkling that Kate’s parents are dead because of her son Swift’s romantic involvement with Frances. This is why she insists that Swift break the news of the murder-suicide to Kate. She also realizes that the intentions of her son Walter are not entirely pure when he takes Douglas Lee from the orphanage to live with him. Her good deeds can be viewed as an expiation for her son’s bad deeds. Readers learn more about Caroline Porter from what she does...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Kate Vaiden

Kate Vaiden, the main character, who tells her story when she is fifty-seven years old and uncertain how many more years her cancer will allow her to live. The story, told with compelling forthrightness and in a richly idiomatic language, focuses on the dramatic events and actions that occurred between the ages of ten and twenty and that have shaped the rest of Kate’s life. The first tragedy that struck was the violent death of her parents. Later and perhaps even more scarring came the death of Gaston, her high school lover, who was killed at the age of seventeen, toward the end of World War II, while still in boot camp. Restless and uncommitted, Kate eventually runs away, becomes pregnant, and then returns for a time to the kind but elderly relatives who had lovingly taken her in when she was orphaned. She gives birth to a son, but soon restlessness resumes, and she abandons the people she loves and who love her, as she feels she was abandoned. Her actions haunt her, but self-knowledge dictates her need for self-preservation, and thus she moves on whenever a place or a person confines her. In time, she manages to get an education and a good job. She settles down in Raleigh, North Carolina, and enjoys the pleasure that men can give her. A permanent relationship eludes her, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. It is only when she faces the possibility of death from cervical cancer that she knows she must find and try to make her peace with her son, Daniel Lee Vaiden, now a career Navy man. It is for him that she prepares her story, which tries to explain, not justify, a damaged and damaging life.


Noony, the black housekeeper of Kate’s uncle and aunt who functions as Kate’s confidant and conscience....

(The entire section is 726 words.)