The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

As the first-person narrator, Frances tells her own story; thus the reader sees her, and everyone else, through her selective but very perceptive viewpoint. Because she presents herself so unfavorably—shy, sharp-tongued, socially awkward, offended by bad manners—the reader may be inclined to think that she is also prim, too polite,...

(The entire section contains 1184 words.)

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As the first-person narrator, Frances tells her own story; thus the reader sees her, and everyone else, through her selective but very perceptive viewpoint. Because she presents herself so unfavorably—shy, sharp-tongued, socially awkward, offended by bad manners—the reader may be inclined to think that she is also prim, too polite, and colorless. Yet she is much more than that, as she herself reveals: She is thoughtful, wryly good-humored, courageous, and kind to the lost or lonely, people with lives that are of no interest at all to the convivial and gregarious Frasers and their friends.

Frances yearns to be noticed, to discover new possibilities, to make changes in her life. She is, however, the daughter of two people who did not like changes; after their death, she continues to live in their apartment with its tasteless, outmoded furniture and decor, her only companion a devoted, ancient housekeeper who also resists change, still thinking of Frances as a child and feeding her the tiny meals that she used to prepare for Frances’ invalid mother, whom she adored.

When Frances becomes involved with the Frasers, new possibilities do open up, but Frances does not really change, although she feels different. She takes more care with her appearance and feels attractive. She tries hard to accommodate herself to the Frasers, to amuse and please them, but she continues to be the quiet, private observer, not the rowdy celebrant that the others are. She enjoys her calm, innocent relationship with James as they hover between affection and love.

The sudden revelation that James lusts after Maria is obviously staged by Alix, but Frances refuses to respond as she knows Alix, and probably the others as well, expect and want her to respond. By not making a scene, by remaining calm and pleasant, she disappoints the “audience,” and in so doing, she later realizes that her association with all of them, not only James, has come to an end.

No other character stands out above the rest, except for Alix, whose manipulation of everyone she encounters, sometimes to their degradation and humiliation, provides the impetus and context for the action of the novel. Although Alix is beautiful and fascinating, she is also vain, egocentric, demanding, and cruel. It is hard to understand how Frances can think, after all she has observed and experienced, that Alix was always kind to her, yet her thought does suggest how Frances has been blinded by Alix’s flattering attention.

Nick Fraser, who formerly embodied for Frances the ideal male principle, comes to seem merely passive and content to go along with whatever Alix proposes. To retain Alix’s apparent devotion to him, he has paid a great price: autonomy and self-respect. James, at the end of his brief friendship with Frances, seems to return to his original persona—distant, wary, and stiff, except when he looks lustfully at Maria in the final scene in the restaurant.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695

Frances Hinton

Frances Hinton, an aspiring writer who works in the reference library of a medical research institute. Healthy, practical, quiet, and calm, Frances is also modestly attractive. An observer rather than a participant in life, Frances is weighed down spiritually by responsibilities taken on too early in life, at the time of her mother’s illness and eventual death. An orphan now, Frances feels herself claustrophobically locked into an existence heading nowhere. In search of excitement, she is drawn into the glittering life of the Frasers. Before long, her dreams of life with them, and of life with James Anstey, are dashed when Alix Fraser senses an independent streak in her and tires of her. Frances takes up her writing again, attempting to turn her pain into something amusing.

Nick Fraser

Nick Fraser, a doctor doing research at the institute. Tall, handsome, athletic, well-connected, and socially charming, Nick has everything going for him. His visits to the reference library enchant the employees, and he receives special treatment because the women are all half in love with him. Although he is working on the subject of depression, Nick is half of a lively, thoughtless couple that takes up Frances for a while, then drops her.

Alix Fraser

Alix Fraser, Nick Fraser’s wife. Tall and fair, not beautiful but with an aura of power that commands attention, and possessing a wonderful mouth and an even better laugh, Alix is Nick’s perfect complement. As careless and brilliant as he is, Alix is somewhat more cruel and blatant. For diversion, she takes Frances into her circle, calling her Fanny (a name Frances hates). She manipulates Frances and then disregards her when James Anstey and Maria become even more amusing.

James Anstey

James Anstey, the other doctor doing research at the institute. Attractive, divorced, and living with his mother, James is meticulous about his work and quiet enough to pale beside the likes of Nick Fraser. Taken up by the Frasers, James becomes Frances’ escort and eventual beau. James decides to rent the Frasers’ spare bedroom. When Frances falls out of favor with Alix, James is content to align himself further with the Frasers and Maria, at the expense of Frances.

Olivia Benedict

Olivia Benedict, a coworker of Frances at the medical institute library and her closest friend, crippled from a long-ago car accident. She admires Nick and is silently critical of Alix. Olivia and her quiet, moral life provide an ironic opposite to the glittering Frasers.

David Benedict

David Benedict, Olivia’s brother, a doctor. He was responsible for getting jobs for Frances and Olivia at the institute. It was long assumed by Frances’ mother and by David’s parents that David eventually would be Frances’ mate.

Maria

Maria, a handsome, high-boned northern Italian woman. She is a neighbor and friend to the Frasers, especially Alix, and a regular at their dinner outings. She takes Frances’ place in the foursome, apparently paired with James Anstey.

Dr. Leventhal

Dr. Leventhal, a librarian and the supervisor of Frances and Olivia. He is the sole support of his widowed sister, with whom he lives.

Dr. Simek

Dr. Simek, a foreign library patron who is researching the history of the treatment of melancholia. He becomes ill with the flu, and Frances visits him at Dr. Leventhal’s request.

Mrs. Halloran

Mrs. Halloran, another library patron, an eccentric who is researching the influence of the planet Saturn on behavior anomalies. Her attempts to engage Dr. Simek in conversation provide comic relief in the quiet medical institute library.

Miss Morpeth

Miss Morpeth, a retired librarian living in a Kensington flat. She was Frances’ predecessor at the institute library and is visited once a month by Frances. The obligatory visits annoy Miss Morpeth, and one Sunday she speaks angrily to Frances. This display of bald truthfulness is one catalyst that drives Frances to want the Frasers’ company.

Nancy Mulvaney

Nancy Mulvaney, an elderly housekeeper who previously worked for Frances’ mother, Beatrice, and now works for Frances. Her shuffling, ghostly presence often makes Frances uncomfortable, but she provides needed solace after the shock of Frances’ last meal with the Frasers, James Anstey, and Maria.

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