The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When thirty-year-old Seymour Levin comes to Cascadia from the East, he is fleeing the memories of a failed love affair and the suicide of his mother, crises which led to his being a drunkard for two years. Hiding behind a beard that he grew because he did not like the sight of his face, he seems to be denying his very identity, and he refers to himself at the start of the novel only as “S.” Levin. As time passes, however, emblematic of the emergence of his multifaceted personality, he becomes known as Sy, Seymour, Lev, and finally Sam. Just as his name changes, so do his roles: A romantic idealist who believes in the importance of integrity, Levin is an alien in a society of corrupt realists and, though he fails personally as a reformer, becomes the motivating force behind changes that are initiated after he is dismissed from the faculty.

Seeking friendships among his colleagues, their families, and others, Levin either is disillusioned with nearly everyone or is unable to find a basis for substantive and enduring relationships, even with the women with whom he becomes involved. The first of these is a waitress whom he steals from a Syrian graduate student and takes to a barn, but at the crucial moment the aggrieved Arab bursts in and takes their clothes. He also fails in his second venture, with colleague Avis Fliss in his office, but on his third attempt, with a student in a motel, he succeeds, though guilt quickly overcomes him, and a conflict over a final grade forecloses any future relationship. Levin’s fourth woman is Pauline Gilley; their affair begins in what he thinks is a pastoral forest, but ironically it actually is the college training site for foresters, and he gets little pleasure from the relationship. Levin, in fact, is a man whom pleasure continually eludes, for his new life—which lasts only ten months—is not much better than the one he...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Seymour Levin

Seymour Levin, a Jewish college professor. He is a thirty-year-old, bearded, East Coast liberal, recovering from a two-year drinking episode following his mother’s suicide and his rejection by his lover. A failure in love and in his profession, Levin goes to the West Coast to teach in the English department of a state university, hoping to start a new life. By mistake, he finds himself at the state technical school rather than at the liberal arts school. He quickly becomes embroiled in the departmental squabbles about textbooks and the relative importance of teaching composition versus literature. Eventually, out of desperation, he quixotically enters the competition for department chairman. In the meantime, he has an affair with the wife of the man who is primarily responsible for giving him the job and who will become the new chairman. Levin’s experiences within the department and with Pauline leave him with the ability to face life on its terms, exemplified by his willingness to assume responsibility for her and her children.

Pauline Gilley

Pauline Gilley, the wife of the assistant department chairman. Thirty-two years old and discontented with her marriage and with life in general, she initiates an affair with Levin, as she did with his predecessor in the department. Whatever her faults, Pauline needs someone more capable of expressing love than is her husband.

Gerald Gilley...

(The entire section is 503 words.)