The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lee is the “Libra” of the novel’s title, the primary character around whom DeLillo builds his plot and its meaning. The astrological sign for the Libran is a pair of scales, a highly appropriate symbol for Lee, who by novel’s end is ready to be tipped either way. Ambivalence has marked much of Lee’s life. An avowed Marxist, he nevertheless joins the U.S. Marines. He longs for life in the Soviet Union, but once there is disappointed and returns to the United States. He admires and identifies with Kennedy, and in his growing delusional state, he believes that assassinating the president will irrevocably complete the identification.

Marguerite Oswald is, next to Lee, the novel’s most compelling character. Even more than Lee, she sets the novel’s tone. She is presented not so much through her actions as through her distinctive manner of speech. She often addresses some ultimate judge (“your honor”) to explain her poverty and her son’s problems. She is both fascinating and repellent; early on, readers sense Lee’s need to escape the manipulative web of words his mother seeks to spin around him.

Conspirators Win Everett, Larry Parmenter, and T. J. Mackey exemplify varying degrees of divergence from the controls of the CIA. Attempting to carry on the work of invasion after the disastrous Bay of Pigs episode, Everett has been found out and banished to Texas Woman’s University, ostensibly to identify potentially friendly...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Dyslexic and fatherless, the emotionally insecure Oswald—reared by a neurotic mother and frequently uprooted while growing up—is a misfit, a “solitary,” who exists at the very margins (social, economic, and psychological) of American life. Even as he exacerbates his own social isolation, he fantasizes about belonging, about having a “destiny” and a part to play in history. He drifts across America, following first his mother, then his brother, a Marine. He joins the Navy, is assigned to a U-2 base in Japan, and is befriended by local communists. Back in the United States, he convinces himself that he will be happy if he can live in the Soviet Union. He defects and marries Marina, a Soviet. He comes to feel again that things would be all right if only he could live somewhere else; he sets his sights first on Texas, then on Cuba. Back in the United States, he becomes an object of interest to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Their very different interests fuel both his sense of importance and his paranoia. Oswald drifts from one marginal job to another, physically abuses his wife, and becomes involved in both right-and left-wing activities; he is a Libran, “sitting on the scales, ready to be tilted either way.” In the plot to kill Kennedy, Oswald’s desires and the plotters’ needs intersect. Once caught, Oswald comes to believe, cheerfully, that he has found his life’s true purpose, his destiny: to sit in a cell—a room of his own—and think and write about the assassination.

Nicholas Branch

Nicholas Branch, a retired senior CIA analyst. He is in his fifteenth year working on contract with the CIA to write the secret history of the assassination. In this sense, Branch, in his room, with his computer and boxes and shelves of endlessly expanding materials, picks up where Oswald left off in 1963. Working in an area of research he sees as marked by ambiguity and error, by political bias, and by systematic fantasy, Branch wonders how to approach this kind of data and how to distinguish history from paranoia and coincidence from conspiracy. Paranoia proves contagious, however: The more material Branch receives, the...

(The entire section is 940 words.)