The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Abigail is the most difficult of the characters to understand because the entire action of the novel is played through her consciousness. Consequently, a reader has the task of clarifying Abigail’s role in the drama as the narrator clarifies the roles of William and Margaret and brings them to life out of her own memories. Adding to the complexity of the character of Abigail is her growth from childhood innocence, to naïve adolescence, to unthinking young adulthood, and finally to an adult awareness of the presence of evil in her community and in herself. Whether Abigail will go on to destroy the community is unclear at the end of the novel, though the novel’s end circles back to its beginning, a November evening in which, with pristine clarity, the stripped trees, bleached grass, drought-shrunken river, and granite outcroppings mirror the condition of Abigail’s soul.

Though William and Margaret have historic roles to play in the chronicle of the South, they are also presented as mythic characters endowed with mysterious attributes and living in their own supernal world. Both are more comfortable in natural surroundings than in society. Both pit their strength against the natural world while willingly aligning themselves with it. Before he meets Margaret, William spends three days in a swamp in a kind of cleansing ritual. Margaret appears to have inherited some of the magic of her great-grandmother, whose hand carries the jagged scar of ceremonial...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Abigail Howland Mason Tolliver

Abigail Howland Mason Tolliver, the narrator and protagonist, a wealthy heiress of modest beauty and intelligence. She tries to understand her family’s turbulent past and present, which recapitulate anxieties of the modern South, torn by racial strife and family disintegration. Abandoned by her father and soon orphaned by her mother’s death, Abigail is reared by her grandfather, William Howland, and his mulatto housekeeper, Margaret, whose light-skinned children, she learns later, are his as well. After finishing college in the East, she returns with her husband, John, to rear their children in the ancestral home. There she is reconciled with her heritage through conversations with Margaret and the spirit of her departed grandfather. She lacks rapport with Margaret’s children and becomes estranged from her ambitious husband. Abigail’s life reaches its climax when Margaret’s son tries to ruin John’s political career by revealing the secret interracial marriage in their family tree. While John is away, a mob of angry whites attacks the place. Abigail cleverly sets fire to their cars while they are busy burning her barn, and she scatters them with a few bursts of gunfire, thus keeping the house and her children safe. In the process of divorcing her husband, she learns that she has inherited most of the property in the town, and she takes revenge by using her leverage to shut down the town’s economy.

William Howland

William Howland, Abigail’s grandfather, a strong but undemonstrative man. After the early death of his first wife, he goes into a swamp on a bet that he can find Calvin Robertson’s moonshine still. He finds it but...

(The entire section is 704 words.)