Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426
Miss Lulu Bett Miss Lulu Bett, a mid-thirties spinster, is the protagonist of the play. For the past fifteen years she has lived in the household of her sister’s family, along with her mother. In the Deacon home, she serves in the role of cook, housekeeper, and general domestic. Her...
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Miss Lulu Bett
Miss Lulu Bett, a mid-thirties spinster, is the protagonist of the play. For the past fifteen years she has lived in the household of her sister’s family, along with her mother. In the Deacon home, she serves in the role of cook, housekeeper, and general domestic. Her sister and brother-in-law take advantage of her, treating her and speaking to her more like they would a servant than a family member.
Lulu finds her situation in the Deacon household paradoxical. On the one hand she feels she ought to be grateful that the Deacons have taken her into their home. On the other hand she knows— despite her contrary protests—that they do not treat her well. She would like to leave the Deacons and find a job where she is better appreciated, but she thinks other options are unavailable to her. Her family has long told her she is no good for work or for a relationship—for instance, she does not believe that any man could possibly like her for herself, as Ninian does—so she feels that she has no chance now to ever change her life.
Lulu jumps at the chance to leave the Deacon house as Ninian’s wife. When she comes back a month later—after learning Ninian was previously married and his first wife may still be alive—it is with new resolve and a new ability to stand up for her own rights, much to the dismay of her sister and brother-in-law, both of whom want her literally to return to her place in the kitchen. Lulu realizes that she cannot take this role on again, and she sets out to create a life of her own, despite her own uncertainties about what the future will bring. Before she can leave town, however, she discovers that Ninian’s wife is dead and that he wants her back. Thus, instead of leaving town alone, she leaves, again, with her husband.
Mrs. Bett, Lulu and Ina’s mother, lives with the Deacons. A senile elderly woman, she dislikes her son-in-law, and in fact all her family members from time to time. In act 1, she accuses Lulu of always having been jealous of Ina, but in act 3 she shows real tenderness toward Lulu when she realizes that Dwight and Ina had been trying to convince Lulu that Ninian never loved her. At that moment, she supports Lulu’s decision to leave, even giving up her entire savings to the venture. Mrs. Bett also claims to be the reason that Lulu never married, telling Ninian that she would not allow marriage to happen. Having buried a husband and four children, Mrs. Bett believes she has saved Lulu from extra pain.
Mr. Cornish is a possible suitor for both Lulu and Di. He has several attributes that endear him to the Deacons: he owns a business (a piano store), but more notably, he is due an inheritance of $500. Ina is confident he will fall in love with Di. Cornish, however, a thinking man who studies laws in the evenings, appears more infatuated with Lulu, praising her cooking, her appearance, and her virtues. After Lulu learns about Ninian’s prior marriage, he asks Lulu to be his wife, but she refuses because she loves Ninian.
Di Deacon is Dwight and Ina’s oldest daughter. About nineteen years old, she is looking for a way out of the home and for someone who will treat her well. As she tells Lulu, ‘‘I could love almost anybody real nice that was nice to me.’’ To achieve these goals, she plans to elope with the neighbor Bobby Larkin. The romance fails when he refuses to lie about their ages, and now that he offers her no escape and thus is of no use to her, she denies their affair to her angry, suspicious parents.
Lulu’s brother-in-law Dwight is a pompous man, for instance, referring to his daughter Monona as ‘‘progeny,’’ mispronouncing words such as rendezvous and chef, making fun of Lulu’s supposed dowdiness, and talking down to his wife. He always insists that his observations are correct and that his rules be followed. His attitude endears him to no one in his family but Ina.
Dwight focuses on his own needs, which are at no time more apparent than when Lulu returns with news of Ninian’s first marriage. His primary concern is how having a brother who is a possible bigamist will reflect upon him, not how this surprising turn of events has affected Lulu. He orders Lulu to hide the truth and let the townspeople think Ninian sent Lulu away because she was not a good wife. Lulu’s refusal to accept this plan both startles and angers Dwight, who accuses her of being ungrateful. His marked selfishness is apparent in his demand that Lulu not open any letter from Ninian in his absence. This time, he places the sanctity of his privacy above Lulu’s need to know the truth from her so-called husband. These instances show Dwight’s utter inability to consider the feelings of others or to see the world from another person’s viewpoint.
Lulu’s sister Ina, wife of Dwight, has her husband’s sense of self-importance, but to a lesser degree. She joins Dwight in bossing Lulu around and in making fun of her, but at times she treats her sister with acts of relative kindness, for instance, lending her sister her old clothes or even complimenting her. Her acts of kindness, however, are more along the lines of those a person would bestow on someone he or she deems to be an inferior, such as a maid. What is abundantly clear is that Ina does not consider her sister an equal; rather, she pities her unmarried sister, while at the same time relishing the fact her sister has nowhere else to go, because it makes Ina’s life easier. As she says at the end of the play, when she realizes that Lulu really is going to leave for good, ‘‘Dwight, you’ve simply got to make her stay. When I think of what I went through while she was away . . . everything boils over, and what I don’t expect to b-b-boil b-b-burns.’’ She demonstrates her true feelings about Lulu with her next lines: ‘‘Sister, how can you be so cruel when Dwight and I—.’’ To Ina, Lulu is a cook, a maid, and a babysitter, but little else.
Monona Deacon is the youngest of Dwight and Ina’s children. She is only a child, maybe ten years old, but at times she speaks the closest thing to truth in the Deacon household. For example, she says that ‘‘grown folks’’ do not act grown up.
Ninian Deacon has not seen his brother Dwight in twenty years and has never met Dwight’s family. Ninian has spent the past twenty-five years wandering around Central and South America. He sees in Lulu a person in her own right, not merely a household drudge. He believes that her family treats her as a ‘‘slavey,’’ and he encourages her to have a life of her own, offering to give Dwight a ‘‘chunk of my mind.’’ Ninian is the first person in anyone’s memory who actually invites Lulu out for the evening. He believes that Lulu is a fine, capable woman, and when he and Lulu accidentally marry, he tells her he would like to let the marriage stand, although he never explains exactly why. Ninian, however, has a secret: he once was married and is not certain that his first wife is dead. He tells Lulu the truth during their honeymoon in Savannah, Georgia, before they set off for Oregon, so she can decide whether to accompany him and take her chances that his first wife is, as Ninian believes, dead. Instead, Lulu returns to the Deacons’ house, but as soon as Ninian learns definitively that his first wife is dead, he comes to win Lulu back. As Lulu hoped all along, he does love her.
Bobby Larkin is Di’s young, illicit boyfriend. He is the neighbor boy of whom, for inexplicit reasons, everyone likes to make fun. Di and Bobby plan to elope but are unable to do so because he refuses to lie about their ages for so sacred a matter. When Di then refuses to acknowledge their relationship to her parents, he breaks up with her.