Character List

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 238

Norton—a ten-year-old boy and the son of Sheppard. His mother died a year before the story opens, and he misses her very much. Lacking friends, he also lacks the unconditional love of his father, who wants his son to be “good and unselfish” yet thinks “neither seemed likely.”

Sheppard—Norton’s father....

(The entire section contains 1021 words.)

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Norton—a ten-year-old boy and the son of Sheppard. His mother died a year before the story opens, and he misses her very much. Lacking friends, he also lacks the unconditional love of his father, who wants his son to be “good and unselfish” yet thinks “neither seemed likely.”

Sheppard—Norton’s father. He is the city’s recreation director but volunteers on Saturdays at the reformatory, thinking he can make a difference in the lives of wayward children. An atheist, he wants to pass on his rationalist view of life to his child, and while he hopes to inspire empathy in him, he lacks the empathy to understand his son’s confusion and sadness over the death of his mother. He expects Norton to feel the same way he feels. Sheppard wants to give Rufus, a boy he counsels at the reformatory, a better chance in life.

Rufus Johnson—a very intelligent but ultimately evil boy. Rufus was raised by his grandfather and has been poor throughout this life. He has a clubfoot, covered by a worn shoe that accentuates the deformity. In trouble much of his life, Rufus meets Sheppard in the reformatory.

The Grandfather—Rufus’s grandfather. Although not active in the plot, the grandfather is a background figure who represents a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible that can corrupt, for he teaches Rufus only about hell and damnation rather than the power of good.

Character Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

With his “very large round ears that leaned away from his head and seemed to pull his eyes slightly too far apart,” Norton can do little to please his father. Overweight, clumsy, and not particularly bright in his father’s eyes, Norton is “lame,” representing all children who do not receive unconditional love from their parents. Rather than being selfish and dull as his father concludes, however, Norton longs for his mother’s love, for her death has created a hole in his life that he cannot fill, because his father is more involved with a misguided sense of “doing good” than in understanding his son’s needs. In addition, Norton needs a moral compass by which to direct his life, but his father’s atheism and rationalism preclude these. The telescope his father gives Rufus, who shares it with Norton, enables the latter to see beyond the misery of his immediate world to the moon—the traditional symbol of the female—to imagine his mother there. However, if his father provides the tool to see, Rufus, with his clear albeit truncated view of good and evil, provides a moral map for Norton to find a way to her: if, as Rufus says, the evil are damned to hell, the good in turn go to heaven, which Norton equates with the moon. Norton’s suicide at the story’s end signifies the failure of the father, the need for moral direction, and the desperation of a child longing for love embodied in the mother.

Although Rufus Johnson is only fourteen years old, everything about his appearance indicates danger, evil, and ultimately Satan: a “fierce” “fore lock” of “thick dark hair” across his forehead, a “fanatical intelligence” in his face, “steel-colored” eyes, and, most significantly, the child’s “monstrous” clubfoot. The boy cultivates his vicious appearance, so that even when Sheppard tries to purchase a shoe to minimize the appearance and discomfort of Rufus’s foot, Rufus rejects it because the grotesque foot provides a means of power over others. “Satan has me in his power,” he tells Sheppard when they first meet, and he has no desire to be saved, yet what sustains him is his steadfast belief in good and evil, heaven and hell. “Whoever says it ain’t a hell...is contradicting Jesus. The dead are judged and the wicked are damned.” Science, symbolized by the telescope Sheppard gives Rufus to broaden his horizons, has little meaning for Rufus—he knows he will go to hell when he dies, so looking at the stars has no use for him. He also argues, however, that “the lame shall enter [heaven] first,” a statement full of irony because “lame” refers to his own foot but also to Norton, whom Sheppard thinks is “lame” in his selfishness, and to Sheppard, whom the reader perceives is lame in his lack of compassion for his son. Ultimately, O’Connor uses Rufus to speak the ironic truth of the story when he tells the police officer that Sheppard is a “tin Jesus,” “a dirty atheist” who is in the power of the devil. Rufus understands that Sheppard’s selfish, rational view of life prevents him from loving his son as he should.

Sheppard’s name alludes to the Good Shepherd that the character, in spite of his atheism, emulates and at times thinks he is, and also to “Alan Sheppard,” the first American astronaut, establishing the motif of the telescope and sky-watching. In this way, “Sheppard” satirizes the character’s inclination to “do good” without understanding the presence of evil and his shortsightedness and arrogance to offer a “new universe” to another instead of addressing more specific moral issues at hand.

Sheppard prides himself on his compassion but shows little pity and much disgust for his son. He cannot understand why Norton cries over his mother’s death and considers the child stupid and, even worse, selfish. Most fathers would consider Rufus Johnson a dangerous influence for their son, but not Sheppard, who sees Rufus as an opportunity to reform someone through intellectual opportunities. He is quite sure that if he gives Rufus “something to reach for,” which is the universe itself, accessed through a telescope rather than clear morality, Rufus will become a good person. Sheppard’s white hair, which stands up “like a narrow brush halo over his pink sensitive face” does not signify his goodness or holiness but rather just the opposite. The final irony in this character is that although he criticizes selfishness in his son, it is he, the father, who is selfish, a sin so egregious within the context of this story that it ultimately results in the Norton’s suicide.

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