Machine Dreams Characters
by Jayne Anne Phillips

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Machine Dreams Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Machine Dreams begins with Jean Hampson's letter to her daughter, describing her own childhood and her relationship with her mother, Gracie Danner. Jean's youth seems to have been characterized by loss and hopelessness: Her fiance" died of a heart attack, her mother died of cancer, her brother married and moved away, and always Jean was alone. Jean appears to be typical of many women in the 1950s and 1960s. To escape her loneliness, she marries and devotes herself to homemaking, abandoning her ambition to become a nurse. Eventually, though, she becomes dissatisfied and begins taking college classes, one or two at a time. After finally receiving her degree and teaching certificate, Jean gradually takes over the role of chief breadwinner for the family, and for the first time she begins to challenge her husband's authority to make the family's decisions. When her children leave for college, she files for divorce, no longer frightened by the prospect of living alone. She wonders, however, if her actions have caused her son to drop out of college and refuse to resist the draft.

The second section belongs to another of the novel's major dreamers — Jean's husband, Mitch Hampson, a World War II veteran who tries, unsuccessfully, to become prosperous by turning his army experience with heavy machinery and concrete to civilian uses. Born in 1910, he is almost a generation older than Jean, but he too has experienced loneliness, as both his father and his mother have apparently rejected him. Although he has been involved with several women, he has not considered marriage until he meets Jean. He believes a wife should never question her husband's authority, and the combination of his business failures and Jean's increasing independence leads to a continuing state of hostility between them. After their divorce, he again lives with his Aunt Bess, just as he did in his childhood. When he learns that Billy is an MIA, he too considers his responsibility for his son's fate.

Mitch's closest family ties are to Aunt Bess, her husband, and their children, Katie Sue and Chuck, who is called Twister or later Twist. After a brief early romantic involvement and pregnancy, which the family has kept secret, Bess lived on the family farm until her brother's death forced its sale. Then, an old maid in her early twenties, she moved to the nearest city, became a secretary, and married Clayton Bond, the younger brother of her boss, Dr. Bond. When the two town doctors built a hospital, she ran it, becoming essentially a practical nurse. Fiercely protective of her unacknowledged son, Mitch, she provides him unconditional love and acceptance, always taking his side in arguments with Jean. She also defends her alcoholic husband, Clayton Bond, whose death means the final ruin of Mitch Concrete and his partner, Mitch. Bess and Mitch attribute Clayton's drinking to his fear that Katie will die. Certainly Katie's bout with rheumatic fever leaves her a sickly child, and Mitch's actual nightmare about her death probably is shared by Clayton and Bess.

Danner Hampson is the first child of Jean and Mitch. Her initial narrative recounts her early memories of collaborating with her brother in schemes to outwit their parents, but she also recalls disputes which she calls upon their parents to settle. Perhaps because they are only fifteen months apart in age, Danner and Billy seem very protective of each other, and most of Danner's childhood recollections seem to involve her brother also. Danner's sections focus upon her own maturation but develop the implied contrast between her relationship with Riley and Billy's relationship with Kato. The emphasis seems to be upon the way Danner is affected, first by the conflict between her parents, and later by...

(The entire section is 956 words.)