The protagonist, Jim McAlpine, is a former World War II naval officer who holds a position at the opening of the novel as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. He is a man with social and professional ambitions which his academic life cannot fulfill. He is a man whose professed liberal values are challenged by Peggy Sanderson’s love for black men. He is a man searching for independence but afraid to let go of his needed social props to find that independence. In contrast to Peggy’s personal and social “untidiness,” McAlpine is a man who thinks that there is a place for everything and that everything has its own place. At the same time, however, he is not sure that he wishes to align himself with Catherine Carver, who, if anything, is even more concerned with straightening things and putting everything in its place than he is. Because he seems to exploit Peggy and Catherine in his search for his own value system, he is not a very appealing hero, even though the reader feels sympathy for him in his lost state at the novel’s conclusion.
Peggy Sanderson, for all of her declared independence and freedom from narrow social prejudices, also is a character with whom the reader finds it difficult to sympathize. In many ways, she seems the superficial liberated female of the 1950’s, a nonintellectual version of the “beatnik chick” who frequents jazz hangouts and demonstrates her liberated attitudes by sleeping with black...
(The entire section is 434 words.)