The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The colonel is not only the protagonist of the novel, he is the novel, for it is his humor and irony, his pride and courage against the inexplicable adversity of poverty and political repression, that give the novel dignity and structure. This wise yet childlike man assumes a sort of tragicomic stature in the course of the narrative. Although he goes to wait for the mail boat every Friday with hopeful expectation, his resigned response is always the same: “No one writes to the colonel.” Although he is often self-effacing, reconciled to the repressive regime which controls his life, he maintains his pride. For example, he does not wear a hat so, as he says, “I don’t have to take it off to anyone.”

He is both idealistic and ironic, a combination that makes him memorable in contemporary fiction. When his wife says that he is only skin and bones, he replies that he is taking care of himself so he can sell himself: “I’ve already been hired by a clarinet factory.” When his wife laments that the mush they are eating is from corn left over from the rooster, and says, “That’s life,” the colonel replies, “Life is the best thing that’s ever been invented.” In some ways, the colonel resembles the existential hero as described by Albert Camus—holding out no hope for transcendent value but maintaining a kind of stoic acceptance of struggle regardless of the outcome. In modern fiction, his closest parallel is Ernest Hemingway’s fisherman,...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The colonel

The colonel, an extremely poor retiree who has waited fifteen years for his military pension. He is rather anorexic, and the only thing that makes him look like he has not been kept in formaldehyde is the vitality of his eyes. He is extremely careful, respectful, and formal, and his hair is metallic, like his joints. His lack of a name in the novel fits perfectly with his wish to remain anonymous, which to him is a way of keeping his dignity. His pride makes every one of his actions appear transcendental, and thus his meager possessions are displaced by a prizefighting cock whose value is mainly symbolic. The colonel appears flat and unapproachable, but in reality he is a good and decent man totally devoted to his wife and to the memory of his son, an ill-defined subversive. Lacking practical concerns, he still distributes the clandestine political literature for which his son was killed. Liked by most of the townspeople, who know his true state, he lives in a dream world and on hope. He realizes that he is aging—he is seventy-five years old—and that he really does not know his wife, but he keeps living by appearances. To the very end, he feels unbeatable, believing that even though he is starving, his rooster will win and feed him.

The colonel’s wife

The colonel’s wife, the colonel’s conscience, guide, and subtle protector. She is a practical woman whose asthma attacks do not prevent her from...

(The entire section is 507 words.)