Percy Munn, a lawyer and gentleman farmer who dies because of his obsessive involvement with the Association of Growers of Dark Fired Tobacco and The Free Farmers’ Brotherhood of Protection and Control, called the “night riders.” Munn sees no pattern or meaning in the events of his life, but he searches for the ultimate decisive deed that will resolve all of life’s conflicts. He anticipates that the “brotherhood” of the association will supply the sense of community he lacks, but instead, the night riders’ activities complete his isolation from his wife, his friends, and his professional ethics. Unjustly accused of murder, Munn flees to the “sanctuary” of Proudfit’s farm, where Proudfit’s autobiographical narrative finally helps him to understand his part in the overall pattern of human history.
Willie Proudfit, a fiercely independent yeoman farmer who hides Munn from the authorities. The antithesis of Munn, Willie embodies the sweep of history: He recalls his past and plans for his future, but he lives in the present. His narrative’s central themes are humans’ need to feel a sense of community, to understand their finite place in the universe, to acknowledge the validity of others’ conflicting visions, and to accept their role in the overall pattern of human history.
Edmund Tolliver, a defeated senator who organizes, but later betrays, the association. A charismatic and ambitious man, Tolliver compensates for childhood poverty by exploiting the land and other people, all in pursuit of political power. For Tolliver, human relationships remain on the level of abstraction, and he never is truly a part of any community. Eventually, his lack of character becomes so obvious that, instead of exacting vengeance, Munn decides Tolliver is...
(The entire section is 769 words.)