Character and a sense of place are the two most important elements in this pastoral novel, with the wide cast of characters who represent the clan constituting the very sense of place that is Banner, Mississippi, and its rural environs. Although Jack is the central figure in the work, and his return from prison signals that he will carry on the family tradition, Granny herself is always there as the presiding matriarch, prepared to hand down her leadership role to Jack’s mother, Beulah Renfro. Opposing the values represented by Granny and Beulah is Miss Julia Mortimer, the teacher who tries to bring the new values of education and progress into this rural world.
Representing both sides are Judge Moody, Miss Julia’s first protégée, who, although he has aligned himself with the side of progress, has remained to adjudicate the actions of the rural world, and Gloria, Miss Julia’s last protégée, who is caught between Miss Julia’s realm and the realm of the clan. Gloria, however, has her own aims—to be with Jack and their child, Lady May, without the support of Miss Julia’s plans for her as a schoolteacher and also without subsuming herself within the all-encompassing family life of the clan.
The novel focuses not only on a multitude of individual characters but also on character in the ultimate sense—that is, the strength of character to withstand the many losing battles that constitute life. Although the rural people distrust Miss Julia and all she represents, they must admit that she, like themselves, understands the need to endure, and they begrudgingly admire the strength of her character. Although they know that she was “St. George and Ignorance was the dragon,” they also affirm their own values of personal strength and endurance. As Uncle Curtis says, “There ain’t no end to what you can lose and still go on living.”