The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By Characters
by Georges Simenon

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

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Kees Popinga

Kees Popinga (poh-peen-GAH), a forty-year-old man who is proud of his family, possessions, and responsible position as managing clerk for Julius De Coster and Son, Ship Chandlers. He is a model citizen of Groningen, Holland. He changes radically, however, into the man referred to in Paris newspapers as the “Madman from the Zuider Zee” and the “Thug from Amsterdam” as a result of an unexpected meeting with his employer. De Coster tells Kees that he no longer has a job, that the firm is bankrupt, and that he himself is leaving town. These events, along with a vague longing for a change, prompt Kees to give up his respectable way of life. He finds that he enjoys reading about himself as a criminal. When police arrest unruly customers at a café where Kees waits for Jeanne, he hides in the lavatory. From that time on, he identifies himself with the criminal world. Having rejected the values that previously had ordered his life, Kees believes that he is free to do whatever he wants with impunity. As a result of his exploits, Kees is convinced that he is a superior person, and he wants others to recognize this. Newspaper articles continue to refer to him as a maniac. One of his letters directing the police to the car thieves’ base of operation results in the thieves agreeing to help the police find him. Kees realizes that he must severely restrict his behavior, the very thing he considers abhorrent, to remain free. In the end, he is sent to an insane asylum in Amsterdam. Ironically, Kees is institutionalized for trying to free himself from bourgeois values.


Mums, Kees Popinga’s wife, an amiable and dignified woman who is devoted to her family. Shocked by Kees’s abandonment, she believes that his behavior is a result of a fit of madness or loss of memory. To support her family, she finds work at the Van Jonghe biscuit factory. After Kees is institutionalized, she visits him regularly.

Julius De Coster

Julius De Coster (zhew-LYEWS deh koh-STEHR), a man nearly sixty years of age who heads the firm of Julius De Coster and Son, Ship Chandlers. At a chance meeting with Kees Popinga, he confesses that his family’s supposedly reputable firm always has been involved in fraudulent activities. Because the firm is bankrupt, he decides to fake suicide and leave Groningen. He advises Kees to give up his respectable life and begin again on a new plane.

Jeanne Rozier

Jeanne Rozier (zhahn roh-ZYAY), a prostitute and a car thief’s mistress. She tries to help Kees by introducing him to her criminal friends after she learns that he is a murderer.

Pamela Mackinsen

Pamela Mackinsen, Julius De Coster’s mistress, a cabaret dancer whom Kees Popinga murders.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In a sense, Georges Simenon has written the book that Kees did not write, but the truth contained in it remains subject to question. The title suggests that Kees Popinga watched longingly as life passed him by. His stifling home and rigid respectability enable the reader to sympathize with his wish to escape and to comprehend his dream of being a different Kees, his feeling that the rascally de Coster is the man who does what another, deeply buried Kees would like to do.

Yet even in the first chapter there are warning notes: “Kees tended to over-play his part...were he to give way in the smallest point there were no lengths to which he would not go.” The rigidity of his life has kept him safe. Associated with his love of night trains is “the streak of wildness latent in his mental make-up,” the longing for the improper, the idea that anyone leaving on the night train is gone forever. The distance from himself and from reality suggested by his vision of himself, playing himself, grows stronger as Kees’s mental illness increases.

The shattering of his illusions about his employer, the end of his security and respectability, are represented by Kees as the advent of freedom. Paradoxically, Simenon insists that free choice ended when Kees left home on December 22: “Then...

(The entire section is 1,333 words.)