Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055
Charley is one of the prisoners. His affection for Sara, his wife, becomes evident during a voiceover, when he and Sara talk lovingly about their union and imagine being together in the future. Toward the end of the play, he collapses in front of her, suggesting that he has been tortured.
The elderly woman is referred to as a mountain woman. She has come to the prison to see her son. While she is waiting in the snow for eight hours, a guard dog bites her hand so severely that her thumb is almost detached. She shows her capacity for compassion and nurturance when she brings food to her son. She also tries to comfort him and fill him with hope by telling him that everyone at home is looking forward to his return. Her inability to understand the official language, and therefore the warning against speaking her own language (mountain language), results in her being beaten by the guards.
She ends the play in silence, in an almost catatonic state. When her son tells her that the prison officials have changed the rules and they are now allowed to speak in their language, she does not respond. It is not clear whether she is too afraid to speak or has lost the ability to do so, perhaps due to her son’s condition.
The guard exhibits cruelty when he repeatedly jabs the elderly woman with a stick when she speaks mountain language. He tries to justify his treatment of her by saying that he has responsibilities and that he has a family. The guard refuses to recognize that his prisoner also has a family, and in an effort to punish him, the guard informs the sergeant that the prisoner is a ‘‘joker.’’
Sara comes to the prison to see her husband, Charley. Although she is not a ‘‘mountain woman’’ and obviously is from a higher social class, she forms a bond with the elderly woman. She illustrates her compassionate nature when she comforts the older woman after she has been bitten by the dog and tries to get help for her. Sara reveals her courage when she stands up to the sergeant and officer on several occasions. She refuses an order to give her name a second time and often meets absurd questions with silence.
Sara is smart enough though to answer some of their questions patiently, as when the sergeant asks her again the name of the dog who bit the elderly woman, and she answers that she does not know, which of course should have been obvious to him. When the women are asked whether they have any complaints, she speaks up, noting that they have been standing all day in the snow, waiting to see the prisoners. She insists that it is her right to see her husband.
After accidentally coming across her hooded husband and realizing that he has been tortured, she breaks down. At the end of the play, she admits that she is willing to sleep with a prison official in order to save her husband.
The officer is the person in charge of the prison. At times, he appears to follow reasonable guidelines, but his behavior quickly dissolves into the absurd, along with that of the sergeant. Sometimes he chastises the sergeant for repeatedly asking the women the same question, and he seems to show concern for the elderly woman’s hand. However, that concern quickly vanishes in a silly discussion of dogs’ names. While he directs the sergeant to ask the women whether they have any complaints, he never acts on those complaints. He reminds the sergeant that the women are not criminals, but he cannot acknowledge that they have not sinned. When the officer discovers that Sara’s husband is not a mountain person, he admits that he has been placed in the ‘‘wrong batch’’ but does not question his guilt. He tries to assert his authority, and points out the absurdity of his rules when he insists that if the dog that bit the elderly woman did not give his name, he will be shot. He reveals his need for control when, as the women are standing silently, he tells them to be silent.
The prisoner illustrates his compassion when he shows great concern about his mother’s hand. He also tries to explain to the guard that she cannot understand the official language in the hopes the guard will stop hitting her. In an effort to encourage the guard to feel compassion and a sense of brotherhood, he explains that he too has a wife and three children. His boldness, however, is punished when the guard determines him to be a ‘‘joker.’’ The blood on his face in the next scene suggests that he has been beaten. When, at the end of the play, his mother appears in an almost catatonic state, he collapses on the floor, gasping and shaking violently, seemingly experiencing a mental and physical collapse.
The second guard appears in the corridor, holding up Sara’s husband.
His cruelty and desire for power is exhibited throughout the play. He repeatedly categorizes the prisoners as ‘‘s——houses,’’ and he tries to demean Sara, whom he considers a ‘‘f—— intellectual.’’ In order to assert his power over her, he puts his hands on her and claims, ‘‘intellectual a——s wobble the best’’ and that she ‘‘bounces’’ with sin. At other times, he professes to be carrying out the law, as when he tells them that mountain language has been forbidden. Later, he appears in the guise of a public servant when he asks Sara what he can do for her after she accidentally appears in the corridor where she sees her husband with a hood over his face. She does not respond, knowing he will do nothing to help her or her husband. He pretends to be magnanimous at the end of the play, suggesting he engineered the change in the rule forbidding anyone to speak in mountain language but then reveals his true nature when he shows no compassion as he watches the prisoner collapse, exclaiming ‘‘you go out of your way to give them a helping hand and they f—— it up.’’
See Sara Johnson