The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Luther Nedeed is the villain of the novel. His love for power provides the catalyst for the demise of humanistic values and the triumph of materialism in the lives of the people of Linden Hills. Like the devil he symbolically represents, his delight is in the destruction of lives of the inhabitants of Linden Hills. The first Luther Nedeed lives on in the person of each of the descendants who carry his name; they also carry his personality and his physical appearance. Willa’s son, who inherits the recessive genes of his light-skinned grandmothers and does not look like his father, serves as the catalyst for the destruction of the Nedeed dynasty. The modern Luther’s inhumanity and selfishness are revealed through his treatment of his wife and son and through his delight in the destruction of the lives of the inhabitants of the lower regions of Linden Hills. Luther is unable to select a wife in the same way that his ancestors did because of changes in the status and expectations of women in contemporary society. Therefore, he waits until his college reunion to pick from the single women uncomfortable with their independent status and desperate enough to consider marriage to him. The purpose of Luther’s matrimonial search is simply to find a woman to bear him a son, who must be conceived in a ritual prescribed by his ancestors. Thereafter, he has no sexual contact with his wife.

Willa Prescott Nedeed is the wife of the last Luther Nedeed and the vehicle...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Willie Mason

Willie Mason, an idealistic twenty-year-old African American poet who lives in a slum bordering the exclusive black neighborhood of Linden Hills. He survives by working odd jobs. Willie left school after completing the ninth grade, believing that he needed to live among the people in order to write, and he takes pride in memorizing and reciting poetry. Willie is intelligent and widely read but rather naïve, and he questions whether he has chosen the right path in life. When he joins his friend Lester to work in Linden Hills for money to spend at Christmas, he discovers the terrible price that people must pay to live there. Willie decides that he will never become part of the soulless society there.

Lester Tilson

Lester Tilson, Willie’s friend, also twenty years old, a poet, and a dropout. He lives with his mother and sister in the first house in Linden Hills, one filled with discord. Lester scorns the materialism of Linden Hills, yet he accepts its comforts. He serves as Willie’s cynical guide and companion as they work their way street by street to the bottom of the Hills and the home of Luther Nedeed.

Luther Nedeed

Luther Nedeed, a wealthy fifth-generation mortician and head of the Tupelo Realty Corporation, which owns all the land in Linden Hills and leases property for a thousand years and a day. He is a carbon copy of his forefathers, all of whom were named Luther and were, like him, short, “frog-eyed,” and very dark. A baleful and enigmatic figure, he seems to control life and death in the Hills. Ironically, although he believes in the importance of family, he destroys many people, including his wife and son.

Willa Prescott Nedeed

Willa Prescott Nedeed, Luther’s wife. She is known only as “Mrs. Nedeed” until the final chapter. Unlike the earlier generations of nameless Nedeed wives, selected for their pale skin, Willa is brown-skinned. Like the others, however, she exists only to produce an heir. When she gives birth to a pale son, Luther refuses to recognize him, though the child resembles him in all other respects. Eventually, he locks Willa and their son in the basement, where the child dies. At first grief-stricken and paralyzed, Willa struggles to reclaim her identity and becomes a force with which to reckon.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Naylor uses an omniscient point of view, much of the novel is presented through the alternating characters of Willie and Willa. Willa’s perceptions and experiences are separated visually from those of Willie and the others by the use of a different typeface. This device works particularly well to signal the dream linkages and unconscious bond between Willa, locked in the basement with her dead son, and Willie in the world above ground. Each character serves to reinforce the other. The distinctive typeface disappears only when Willa emerges from the Nedeed basement to confront her husband in the final chapter.

Naylor deliberately invests her characters with allegorical traits in order to parallel figures in the works of Dante. The characters are sometimes wrenched in order to fit Dante’s mold, however, and their allegorical qualities make it more difficult to view them realistically. Although both Willie and Lester are made unlikely poets so that they can represent Dante and Vergil touring the Hell of Linden Hills, their characters are two-dimensional, and their dialogue often seems forced.

Luther Nedeed is a perverse and powerful figure who is reincarnated through five generations. What the Nedeeds do is to destroy people’s sense of the past and history: “A magician’s supreme art is not in transformation but in making things disappear.” Everything begins with the present in Linden Hills, which is corrupted by materialism....

(The entire section is 517 words.)