The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

The nature of the characters in Nothing is determined by two factors: their social situation and Green’s self-conscious decision to delineate the characters primarily through dialogue. Given the facts that the characters are basically shallow or dull and that readers are not allowed into their minds, since all that can...

(The entire section contains 1125 words.)

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The nature of the characters in Nothing is determined by two factors: their social situation and Green’s self-conscious decision to delineate the characters primarily through dialogue. Given the facts that the characters are basically shallow or dull and that readers are not allowed into their minds, since all that can be known of them is from what they say, the characters seem to be nothing more than the somewhat brittle and boring surfaces that they project socially. A flat, two-dimensional sense of character is the result. No one is either very good or very bad; no one is torn by emotional or philosophical doubts; no one is heroic or villainous; in short, no one is very interesting. Rather, they are all recognizable types.

For example, Jane, the central character in what is really an ensemble performance of six characters, is beautiful and witty but spoiled and unscrupulous. Her manipulations to get John back and to break up her daughter’s marriage to John’s son constitute the main plot interest. John is a well-bred and well-dressed middle-aged man, but he is a snob. He is also easily manipulated by Jane. Liz, John’s mistress, is an embodiment of sexual indifference, apparently content to be passed from man to man. Dick, the last man to whom she is passed, is an apoplectic and pompous fool. They drift together, after being dropped by Jane and John, for lack of anything better to do.

The younger generation fares no better. Mary and Philip are somewhat too earnest and more than a little dull. They are stuffy and take themselves and the world too seriously. The only other characters of importance are Arthur Morris, an old friend, and Penelope Weatherby, Jane’s six-year-old daughter. Morris serves both as a raconteur, who communicates to the younger couple the carefree life of their parents when they were young, and as a symbolic figure who, by losing limbs of his body one by one until he finally dies of a blood clot, represents the gradual dwindling into “nothing” suggested by the title. Penelope is a neurotic child who is given to sticking pins into herself in imitation of John, who must give himself injections for his diabetes. Yet she is less a real child than a metaphor for the childish absurdity of the various meaningless pairings in the novel. Ostensibly, her strange behavior is related to a play-or mock-marriage she has with John in the first chapter of the novel, during which a cigar band is used for a ring. After this event, Penelope wanders around complaining that she has no husband.

Here, as is true in other Green novels, the minor characters are more interesting than the major ones. Yet Arthur and Penelope are not interesting as people; they are interesting as metaphors: Their complexity is really the complexity of their symbolic relation to the major characters.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

John Pomfret

John Pomfret, a forty-five-year-old widower. He is a member of the older generation who made much of parties, socializing, and sex. He had a good war record, but his main interests presently seem to be his affair with Liz Jennings and his longtime friendship with Jane Weatherby. His affair with Jane in the past almost broke up his marriage to Julia. He is fond of his daughter Mary, but she is not at the center of his life. John usually laughs at things, maintaining an ironic stance.

Jane Weatherby

Jane Weatherby, a widow with a twenty-year-old son, Philip, and a six-year-old daughter, Penelope. Jane, who has fat, white hands and plump, firm thighs, has been having an affair with Dick Abbot. On the surface, she seems flighty and helpless, but she manipulates the other characters in her indirect, “feminine” way. She prevents Philip’s marriage to Mary Pomfret so that she can marry John, Mary’s father, and not have her marriage look ridiculous to society. Jane makes much of her concern for her daughter Penelope, creating her image as a devoted mother, but she deprecates Philip to her friends, saying that he is not quite normal. Jane also seems tight with money, unwilling to help out the newly engaged couple, Philip and Mary.

Mary Pomfret

Mary Pomfret, who is eighteen years old and striking in appearance. She is described as a bluestocking, taken up with her civil service job. She and Philip think that life is hopeless because of the national economy. Mary tells Philip that they should elope, but he worries that an elopement would upset his family. Mary not only loses Philip (as a result of Jane’s machinations) but also loses her job when she obeys her father’s request that she spend time in Italy and miss his wedding (another of Jane’s ideas).

Philip Weatherby

Philip Weatherby, who works in the same office as Mary and proposes to her on his twenty-first birthday party. He vacillates, however, when his mother covertly opposes the match. He does not care enough to fight for her, and he remains under his mother’s thumb. Pompously, Philip says that his generation is making the country a fit place to live, unlike the older generation, who are like rabbits about sex. He worries that his biological father is really John Pomfret.

Elizabeth (Liz) Jennings

Elizabeth (Liz) Jennings, John Pomfret’s lover. At twenty-nine years of age, she says that she is afraid that she will never have children, but John refuses to take the hint and propose. Liz is accused of having drunk too much at a party, a charge that Jane uses against her. Liz cultivates Dick Abbot when the two of them are neglected by John and Jane. Ultimately, they switch partners, with Liz claiming that Dick is the better man.

Richard (Dick) Abbot

Richard (Dick) Abbot, who has choking fits and talks often about his war experiences in Italy. With doglike eyes, he looks at Jane and says that he would like to marry her. Dick has a sense of social propriety and loyalty to Jane, even when she spurns him. When Liz plays up to him, however, Dick starts an affair with her.

Penelope Weatherby

Penelope Weatherby, Jane’s six-year-old daughter, who has copper curls and large eyes. Jane treats her as if she is neurotic, saying that Penelope is distressed by a make-believe wedding with John Pomfret, at seeing a one-armed man, and at hearing that John is diabetic. Philip thinks that his little sister knows how to get her own way.

Arthur Morris

Arthur Morris, a member of John and Jane’s set who throughout the novel is dying by bits and pieces. His big toe is amputated, then his ankle, and then his knee. Finally, he dies; his funeral is a social occasion.

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