The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Williston Bibb Barrett is handsome, friendly, and intelligent, but unremarkable. His courtesy reflects not a studied culture but the natural adaptability of a person who is pure possibility. Will makes “the highest possible scores on psychological aptitude tests, especially in the area of problem-solving and goal-seeking. The trouble was he couldn’t think what to do between tests.” Will is subject to fugue states that blot out his recent past, yet inklings return in his frequent déjà vus. The omniscient narrator of the novel rarely refers to Will by name; instead, he is called “the courteous engineer” or “the sentient engineer,” an ironic mixing of Will’s gentlemanly nature and keen insight with his inability to engineer his own life. Until the end of the book, his life course is basically determined by others. Sutter Vaught made high grades at Harvard Medical School, but at age thirty-four he does not practice medicine; instead, he writes pathology reports as an assistant coroner. Sutter’s medical insurance was cancelled after he put a depressed patient in the terminal ward of the hospital (where the patient became quite cheerful) and then sent him home to his family and garden after the patient suffered what was to be a fatal heart attack. Sutter does not fit the boundaries of courtesy; in his notebooks he extols the virtues of lewdness. He rails against so-called Christian America for its outward decorum but covert lewdness (as seen in soap...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Williston Bibb (Will) Barrett

Williston Bibb (Will) Barrett, a twenty-five-year-old humidification engineer at Macy’s. He is a likable young man from the South who experiences occasional spells of amnesia and disorientation. He worries about his mental health as well as his lack of purpose in life. After two years at Princeton University and five years of unsuccessful psychoanalysis, Barrett is ready to leave New York City when the opportunity arises after his meeting with the Vaught family. Barrett is a seeker after meaning who has lived a life of mere possibility until now, but he thinks he has found the beginning of a commitment when he believes himself to be in love with Kitty Vaught. His more important discoveries come, however, when he is hired as a companion for Jamie Vaught, Kitty’s sixteen-year-old brother, who is terminally ill with leukemia. Barrett is the type of metaphysical seeker who is described in the philosophical works of such existentialist philosophers as Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus. His name pays homage to American scholar William Barrett, whose Irrational Man (1958), a study of existentialism, influenced the author.

Chandler Vaught

Chandler Vaught, a genial millionaire from Alabama who made his money from a gigantic car dealership. Now an elderly man, Vaught is amiable but lacks intellect and self-awareness. He feels disappointed about the behavior of his talented children, each of whom he gives $100,000 on his or her twenty-first birthday. His older son, Sutter, has abandoned a promising medical practice to become an assistant coroner, and his older daughter, Val, has become a member of a religious order. He hopes for better things from Kitty and Jamie, who, because of his illness, will receive his gift at the age of sixteen. Vaught hires Barrett to be Jamie’s companion.

Kitty Vaught

Kitty Vaught, a pretty young woman of twenty-one who has received both a good education at expensive preparatory schools and many years of ballet training. She lacks experience with men and a clear purpose in life. Currently, she is a protégée of Rita Vaught, the worldly divorced wife of Sutter; however, Kitty finds Barrett’s infatuation with her flattering and confusing. Barrett persuades her to go home with the family instead of touring Europe with Rita. When Kitty joins Jamie and Barrett as students at the university, she begins to acquire...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)