Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

Percy Munn

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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

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

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 already dead in every sense but the literal one.

Bill Christian

Bill Christian, an impetuous tobacco farmer instrumental in forming the association and drawing his friend Munn into it. Unlike Munn, who speaks philosophically of the association’s purpose, Christian defines its goal in practical terms: to force tobacco buyers to pay what tobacco is worth. Christian’s pride in his ancestral home suggests both his link to his family and his sense of history. His efforts to balance his conflicting roles as family man and night rider result in a spiritual paralysis eventually reflected in his physical paralysis. Finally, disillusioned with his associates and feeling betrayed by Munn’s affair with his daughter, Christian dies.

Dr. MacDonald

Dr. MacDonald, a local physician who is the most reckless of the night riders. Always apparently self-assured, MacDonald is the only night rider who is not masked, and at his trial he appears totally at ease. Thus, he seems more a cavalier than a man of science. Unlike Munn, however, MacDonald has an identity apart from the association. He demonstrates not only a concern for his family but also the ability to plan for a future that does not include the association or the night riders.

Professor Ball

Professor Ball, a schoolmaster who kills the chief witness against his son-in-law and allows Munn to be blamed. Ball represents the subversion of philosophy to the night riders’ cause. A man of words rather than deeds, Ball resembles Munn in his romantic idealism. Munn, who also has killed impulsively, understands the agony of hidden guilt that causes Ball’s health to fail.

Captain Todd

Captain Todd, a founder of the association who believes his four-year Civil War experience was enough violence for a lifetime. Like Christian, Todd never loses sight of the association’s original goal. When his rational arguments prove insufficient to restrain the night riders, he resigns from the association’s board, explaining that he no longer can clearly define the community to which he owes allegiance.


Grimes, a tenant farmer on Munn’s land. As practical as Munn is romantic, Grimes holds an almost sacramental view of the land, based on his experience with it. For the nearly sixty years he has planted tobacco on Munn property, the land’s fertility has remained dependable. Grimes knows his place in the universe; he observes that growing tobacco requires “God’s will and weather” as well as human sweat. Grimes also speaks for family continuity and the pattern of history: He comments that he planted tobacco on the same plot when Munn’s father owned it and others will plant there after both he and Munn are dead. Eventually, the night riders’ raids break his ties with this land, as he becomes convinced that tobacco is a curse on the land. Grimes’s departure signals Munn’s complete detachment from family and history.

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