Characters Discussed

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Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar, a constant observer, analyst, and amateur philosopher, possibly the quintessential “modern.” Although Mr. Palomar’s character is not developed in the conventional sense, physically or psychologically, the reader does learn some superficial facts about his life. Mr. Palomar lives in Rome with his wife and daughter. He is well-to-do, enjoying an abundance of leisure time, and he likes to travel. As Mr. Palomar’s name, purposely evoking the famous telescope, suggests, his musings are at least as much symbolic as they are personal. Mr. Palomar observes and ponders objects as diverse as blackbirds, the sky, a cheese shop, and the naked bosom of a sunbather. At least twice, however, Mr. Palomar finds the tables turned on him, becoming the observed rather than the observer. Toward the end of the novel, Mr. Palomar’s lack of authoritative self-knowledge becomes conspicuous, but then, as the author suggests, a telescope is probably not the best instrument for seeing oneself.

Mrs. Palomar

Mrs. Palomar, Mr. Palomar’s wife and occasional critic. Strictly a foil to the main character, Mrs. Palomar makes only three notable appearances. Early in the book, she displays mild impatience with Mr. Palomar’s attempt to sing along with some blackbirds he is observing. Later, her plants and her appreciation of them are contrasted with objects of interest to her husband. Finally, she joins Mr. Palomar in observing a gecko on their terrace. The presence of Mrs. Palomar (and her daughter, about whom the reader learns almost nothing) keeps Mr. Palomar from representing any simple sort of loneliness or personal desolation. Mr. Palomar is not physically or emotionally a hermit. He does tend to get lost in his own reflections, and he may be lost in the cosmic scheme of things, but this condition is not because he is alone, as the presence of Mrs. Palomar makes clear.

The Characters

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Mr. Palomar lives with his wife, identified only as Mrs. Palomar, and unnamed daughter in Rome. He is a kind of urban Everyman who becomes increasingly worried over the rather tenuous connection between him and the rest of the world. Mr. Palomar himself is a nervous and anxious man, by turns haughty, evenhanded, and depressive, doubtful of his own significance, caught up in his own interior monologue. He wears glasses to correct myopia and ironically trusts only his own limited eyesight to provide certitude in a frenzied world. Even the ability of science to provide certainty must be doubted: Science cannot explain the most common of natural events, the migration of starlings.

Palomar, edgy and absentminded, introverted and fickle, is presented in the novel not as a fleshed-out individual, but rather as a collection of moods and attitudes, whose passion lies in making collections. He groups a blackbird’s song into trills, whistlings, and gurgles; he sees his lawn as a collection of this blade and that weed, and the universe as a collection of galaxies, dust particles, and force fields. He observes a flock of starlings, the foods in a Paris gourmet store, and he draws and measures the cheeses in a cheese shop, attempting to place each kind of cheese in some kind of context: historical, social, psychological. He thinks of the cheese shop as a dictionary.

Yet when Palomar observes the waves, the animals at the zoo, or the planets and stars, definitions fail him because there, unlike the manufactured cheeses, there is no history, no biography. The stars will not yield up their secrets; they can only be observed and cataloged. Palomar knows that is not enough. Somehow he must move from the surface of things...

(This entire section contains 440 words.)

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to their interpretation. This is humorously expressed in the second meditation in the book, “The Naked Bosom” (1.1.2.), as Mr. Palomar repeatedly passes a sunbather who has bared her breasts. He is striving to achieve just the right kind of glance; averting his eyes would be to acquiesce in overzealous prudery, yet viewing the bared bosom as he would view a sand dune or an ocean wave is to do disservice to the significance of the female breast. Finally, certain that he has achieved a “detached encouragement,” Palomar once again crosses near the woman, who promptly leaves in a huff.

Mr. Palomar would like nothing better than to deduce the meaning of his own life, but his first principles, or axioms, are hazy at best. All of his models of reality disintegrate until he must face reality directly, and with that his inability to give it order or to explain it.




Critical Essays