The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rutherford Calhoun, the narrator of the novel, is an engaging and likable guide to the action despite his propensity for amoral (and sometimes immoral) behavior. For example, Rutherford leaves New Orleans solely to escape any kind of commitment to Isadora—a woman who clearly cares deeply for him—and yet he explains away his behavior humorously and with enough self-deprecation to keep the reader from judging him too harshly. The same holds true for Rutherford’s numerous questionable actions—thieving, stowing away on a ship he knows to be a slaver, informing on his shipmates, and so on. Curiously, Rutherford has received a broad and liberal education from his former owner, a minister who had Rutherford read from the classics of Western philosophy. As a narrator, Rutherford employs this learning in numerous allusions that range from the Greek philosopher Parmenides to the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas to the English poet Lord Byron. Similarly, Rutherford draws upon a vast and unusual vocabulary; it is clear that he has not been reared as a common slave. Despite this education, Rutherford is unable to make routine moral choices, and he continues to act purely out of self-interest until he meets the Allmuseri and learns something about their distinctly non-Western philosophy. Toward the end of the narrative, Rutherford has matured significantly, though the story ends before it is certain whether these changes are profound enough to last.


(The entire section is 580 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rutherford Calhoun

Rutherford Calhoun, the novel’s first-person narrator. Calhoun, a well-educated and pleasure-seeking slave, is manumitted at the age of twenty-one. Angered by his brother’s refusal of their master’s wealth, Calhoun leaves rural Illinois for New Orleans, where he survives on charm, thievery, and lies. When Boston schoolteacher Isadora Bailey, aided by black underworld king Papa Zeringue, attempts to force Calhoun into marriage, he stows away on the Republic, a slave ship about to sail to Africa. His shipmates are divided into many factions, and Calhoun, as always guided by his own best interests, pledges allegiance to them all. Thus he vows loyalty to Captain Falcon, to the mutiny-bound crew, and finally to the African captives, the Allmuseri. Amid wild storms, cruel treatment of the black captives, the slaves’ rebellion, a life-threatening illness, and a dark-night-of-the-soul experience, Calhoun, a philosopher as well as a trickster, examines the dualistic and hierarchical view of reality by which he and America live. Gradually, this experience gives him a new vision, one of interdependence and compassion. When the ship sinks, Calhoun is rescued by Papa Zeringue and Isadora Bailey, from whom he fled at his journey’s beginning. Calhoun’s conversion is complete. With Isadora Bailey now his wife, he sets off for Illinois to reunite with his brother.

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rutherford Calhoun, the first-person narrator of Middle Passage, is a complex protagonist. He is by education a philosopher and by inclination a trickster. Once a slave, he is now free. His roots are in rural Illinois, but he loves the excitement of New Orleans big-city life. When his gambling debts and Isadora, a woman determined to marry him, force him to escape New Orleans and stow away on the Republic, a slave ship, he adapts quickly to the vicissitudes of a sailor’s life. Calhoun is a survivor because he always puts his own interests first.

Calhoun chooses the words in which he narrates his story from some widely diverse word hoards: formal discourse, African American dialect, lyric poetry, nautical jargon, and slang. This rich voice, in combination with his many masks, is Calhoun’s weapon of empowerment in the midst of many adventures, which range from ridiculous to truly life-threatening. The narrator and his voice combine comic and serious tones and speed through language shifts, historical allusions, and zany anachronisms to hold and entertain readers.

With this wonderful voice, Calhoun invites readers into his adventures. For example, the Republic’s dwarfed, pedophiliac, tyrannic, and paranoid Captain Falcon threatens Calhoun with dire punishment for stowing away. In a short while, however, Calhoun is the captain’s best friend, and several times during the voyage the two discuss the meaning of life...

(The entire section is 597 words.)