The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

James McAlpine

James McAlpine, a former Navy lieutenant commander and a history professor at the University of Toronto in his early thirties. A magazine article he writes, titled “The Independent Man,” leads Joseph Carver to invite him to Montreal to write a triweekly column for the Sun. In Montreal, the normally pragmatic and conventional Jim comes under the spell of Peggy Sanderson, and his desire to understand, protect, reform, and possess her becomes an obsession that overshadows both his initial attraction to Catherine Carver and his wish to achieve status among Montreal’s English-speaking elite. He believes that his final betrayal of Peggy, when he leaves her alone on the night of her greatest crisis, makes him responsible for her murder.

Peggy Sanderson

Peggy Sanderson, the daughter of an Ontario United Church minister. Though in her mid-twenties, she looks far younger; she is petite, fair, childlike in appearance, and innocent in demeanor. That seeming innocence is belied by her free-spirited disregard for propriety. In particular, she seeks out friendships with some of Montreal’s black jazz musicians in the face of racial and social taboos. Whether she is a slut in search of forbidden excitement or an enlightened humanist transformed by her childhood friendship with the one black family in her town is the mystery that obsesses Jim McAlpine and that earns for Peggy the contempt of whites and the uneasy resentment of blacks. Her flirtation with the forbidden leads inevitably to her rape and murder at the hands of a criminal who could be any one of the many men, white and black, that she both repelled and attracted.

Joseph Carver

Joseph Carver, the wealthy elderly publisher of the Montreal...

(The entire section is 736 words.)