Character List

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

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...

(The entire section is 783 words.)