The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Life Before Man is a novel of character over plot, and the central character in these tangled sexual skeins is Elizabeth Schoenhof. As readers learn from scattered bits of information, Elizabeth had a poor and painful childhood. Their mother an alcoholic, Elizabeth and her sister were reared by miserly Auntie Muriel, and both Elizabeth’s mother and her sister died while Elizabeth was still young. She is full of unrelieved grief and anger, much of it aimed at Auntie Muriel, but when her aunt is dying in the hospital, Elizabeth can only comfort and forgive her. Most important, her childhood has made Elizabeth strong, but with a strong need for security and control. (A friend tells Lesje that Elizabeth is “Haute Wasp,” and that “Chris was the chauffeur” in her life.) For Chris, Elizabeth represented “what he wanted, power over a certain part of the world: she knew how to behave....” She now knows that she treated Chris “the way men treat women,” and she is having trouble dealing with Chris’s death and her part in it. “We are the numb,” she thinks; “All she wants is oblivion. Temporary but complete....” She knows that she will win in her legal and psychological battles with Nate after all, that is probably why she married him “and she hopes it will make her feel better.” She has always controlled events around her, even the schedule of her husband’s affairs. “You wanted to supervise us,” Martha accuses her. “Like some kind of playground organizer.” She lets...

(The entire section is 616 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Elizabeth Schoenhof

Elizabeth Schoenhof (SHEHN-hohf), the thirty-nine-year-old protagonist, who works in special projects in a Toronto museum of natural history. Elizabeth desperately needs to be in control, of her own life as well as the lives of others. As the daughter of a chronically alcoholic mother and a frequently absent father, she had to become streetwise at an early age. When her former lover Chris kills himself, her world begins to unravel. Still, the other characters continue to orbit around Elizabeth, which is a tribute to her very real strength. For some years, she and Nate have had an open marriage, but they no longer have a sexual relationship themselves, although they confide in each other about their separate affairs. At the end, she lets Nate go to live with his current lover, Lesje, and is trying to find happiness in her new arrangement. Elizabeth is clearly the central character in the tangled sexual skein that makes up the novel, which is a mildly acidic portrait of modern marriage.

Nate Schoenhof

Nate Schoenhof, her thirty-four-year-old husband, trained as a lawyer. A man with little backbone and with less moral sense, Nate “dropped out” from the world of lawyering because he wanted his life to be “honest.” He has recently been a woodworker making toys at home, but he sometimes seems more the child for whom the toys have been made, especially in his relationship with Elizabeth. He sees himself as persecuted by three generations of...

(The entire section is 630 words.)