The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Richard’s development is dramatic because up until now he has been something of a mother’s boy. His father died when Richard was six, leaving Richard in the sole care of his mother, an exceedingly religious woman, who enrolled him in the Episcopalian boys’ boarding school so he could be in the company of other boys and men. Yet the woman herself took up residence on the school’s grounds, causing Richard to hang around her cottage, trying to get a glimpse of her (usually denied). Meanwhile, Richard apparently suffered the harsh, lonely fate of most mother’s boys who are dropped into the midst of the wolf pack. His self-mortifications and fantasies of martyrdom are obvious emotional outlets. To Richard, intimidated and demoralized, his lack of status is still excruciatingly evident. Even on this Good Friday morning, the older boys scorn his meekly offered statements and refer to him as “crazy”—a judgment with which Richard privately concurs.

As Richard grows and asserts himself, there are stirrings of rebellion against his mother and against religion, which he associates with his mother and with effeminate behavior. He feels a moment of hatred for his mother, who teaches that being good means submitting to the unhappiness that God decrees. In that case, Richard thinks, who wants to be good? Other available models of goodness are hardly more inspiring. Poor Claude Gray, with his effeminate voice, looks, and manners, is grotesque in his...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Richard, an aspiring “saint” who suffers from the contradictions that plague many adolescents his age. He is so impressed with the holiness of the Lenten season that he vows to do as much for Jesus as Jesus did for him; his failure to measure up to Christ’s example causes him to feel deeply ashamed. Obsessed with the desire to demonstrate his piety, Richard punishes himself and almost drowns, only to suffer from feelings of false pride afterward. Despite his overpowering desire to be reverent, Richard cannot keep his mind from wandering during the service. He is also torn by his need to impress his friends, whose good opinion he seems to value almost as much as God’s. Feeling frustrated in his attempts to be humble without feeling proud of it, Richard leaves the church and arrives at a real sense of his own capacity for evil in the woods, where he participates in the senseless slaughter of a snake.

Richard’s mother

Richard’s mother, who is loving but oppressive. Because she is rearing Richard by herself, she encourages him to play with other boys and inadvertently causes him to feel abandoned. Her insistence that Richard learn God’s will by submitting is largely responsible for Richard’s poor self-image. His nagging feeling that vanity is mixed up in his piety also is a product of his mother’s influence. Because Richard is torn between feelings of love and hatred for her, she is, for the most part, ineffective as a mother.

Willard Rivenburg


(The entire section is 637 words.)