Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1336
See Robert Lewis
Mr. Fred Higgins
Fred Higgins, a local politician, is a friend of Colonel Norwood’s and a man who believes in the racial superiority of whites. Higgins comes to warn Norwood that Robert has been causing trouble in town, and warns Norwood that Robert’s actions might lead to his death. Higgins also criticizes Norwood’s relationship with Cora, saying that it is okay to have sex with her, but that living with her like he has been is a scandal. Unlike Norwood, Higgins rules over his African American workers with an iron fist.
Cora Lewis is the black housekeeper and mistress of Colonel Tom Norwood, with whom she has four living mulatto children. Cora first met Norwood when she was fifteen years old, when he first had sex with her. When Norwood’s wife died, Cora, who was already pregnant with William, moved into the Big House on Norwood’s plantation, and has been living with him like a wife for thirty years. Cora yields to her new life without a fight and as a result, Norwood is sometimes nicer to her and their mulatto children than he is to other African Americans on his plantation. Because of this, Cora tries even harder to keep the peace in the house, buries her own feelings and does whatever is necessary to earn the best life for her children. While she is able to get most of her children to act the same way, Robert does not.
At first, Cora criticizes Robert for his behavior and is worried that Robert’s actions might hurt all of her family in the end. Throughout the play, Cora tries in vain to smooth over the conflict between Robert and Norwood, first by appealing to Norwood to go easy on Robert, then by appealing to Robert to act respectful to Norwood. However, in the end she is unable to stop Robert from killing Norwood. This act, and perhaps the strain of bottling up her own emotions for so long, drives Cora insane. She speaks to Norwood’s corpse as if he is still alive and refuses to believe that he is in the undertaker’s wagon, even when others try in vain to tell her that he is. Even after Norwood’s body has been taken away, Cora believes that he is one of the mob who is chasing after the fleeing Robert. Through her conversations with Norwood’s corpse and then with the thin air, the audience realizes that Cora has never been happy with the fact that Norwood did not admit his paternity, and the fact that he beat their children. She curses the dead man, and wonders why God has forsaken her, since she has always tried to live right. Ultimately, she watches as Robert runs upstairs to kill himself, and tells herself and the mob that arrives that her boy has gone to sleep.
Robert Lewis is the youngest mulatto son of Cora Lewis and Colonel Thomas Norwood; his actions cause the conflict in the play and lead to the murder of Norwood and Robert’s own suicide. Since he was a boy, Robert, who Cora calls ‘‘Bert,’’ has shared both the physical characteristics and the headstrong ways of his father, Norwood. As a child, Robert is Norwood’s favorite mulatto child, until Robert calls him his father in front of an important group of white people. Norwood beats the young Robert, a beating that he never forgets. Norwood also sends Robert away to school for six years, so he does not have to be around him. However, this backfires on Norwood. Since Robert has been heavily educated outside of the plantation, when he returns he finds it impossible to be subservient like the other African Americans who work for Norwood.
This sense of personal confidence and selfesteem, which is lacking in many other African Americans, gets Robert into trouble. When a C.O.D. order arrives broken at the town post office, he argues with the white woman at the counter, trying to get his money back. This incident, which is viewed as outrageous by the white community, also helps to put him in direct conflict with Norwood. Robert adds fuel to the fire by refusing to use the back door of the house like the other African Americans, and by driving faster than white men like Higgins. Ultimately, this behavior, which is generated from Robert’s desire to act more like his white half than his African American half, leads to a final confrontation with Norwood. The latter pulls a gun on Robert, but Robert easily overpowers his father, then chokes him to death. When Robert realizes what he has done, he flees the mob that he knows will be sent after him. Ultimately, he is unable to leave town, and so he returns to Norwood’s house, where he shoots himself before the mob can catch him and hang him.
Sallie Lewis is the seventeen-year-old mulatto daughter of Cora Lewis and Colonel Norwood; she is so light-skinned that she could pass for white. In the beginning of the play, Sallie leaves to catch her train for her semester at school. Although she wants to be a teacher, Norwood says she will be a cook like her older sister. Sallie, like her mother and the others, lie to Norwood and say that Sallie is learning cooking and sewing at school, when Sallie is really learning how to type.
William Lewis is the oldest mulatto son of Cora Lewis and Colonel Norwood; he is dark-skinned like his mother. At twenty-eight, William has no ambition to be anything more than a field hand. He has a family including a boy, Billy, and wants only to live out his life. As a result, he is concerned and angry at the way that Robert provokes Norwood and causes trouble in town. William and Robert start to get in a fight over this, but Cora breaks it up. At the end of the play, after Robert murders Norwood, William, like many of the other African Americans on the plantation, plans on fleeing to the safety of the local church house or getting out of town altogether.
Colonel Thomas Norwood
Colonel Thomas Norwood is a sixty-year-old Southern plantation owner who is also the father of Cora Lewis’s four living mulatto children. Norwood is a widower with a quick temper which he often unleashes on his personal servant, Sam, or his mistress, Cora. For the most part, Sam, Cora, and most of the other African Americans on the plantation fear Norwood. As a result, even though he is harsh, he treats them better than most plantation owners treat their African American workers. This is especially true with his mulatto children. Although he does not acknowledge his paternity, he does try to help them out by sending them to school. However, when it comes to Robert, this is his undoing. An educated Robert refuses to submit to Norwood’s will, which angers Norwood. When Norwood finds out from his friend, Fred Higgins, that Robert has been causing trouble in town, including naming Norwood as his father, Norwood is irate. He is also concerned about his reputation since Cora has been his only lover since his wife’s death—a relationship that is frowned upon in the Southern white society in which he lives. Norwood insists on speaking with Robert. The conversation does not go well, and Norwood eventually pulls a gun on Robert. However, Robert disarms Norwood and chokes him to death.
Sam is Colonel Norwood’s personal servant, who believes in going with the status quo. In the beginning, Sam is one of the ones who notes Robert’s brash behavior, and worries about the effect that Robert’s actions will have on his own life. However, at the end, Sam gets over his fear and realizes that with Norwood dead, Sam is free to leave the plantation.