The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Virtually all the deep characterization in this novel is focused on Jessica, who seems in many ways to be a close counterpart to the author. Nadine Gordimer has also been married twice and, like Jessica, was barred from normal childhood activities after about age nine because of the suspicion of a heart ailment. Jessica recalls that sheltered early life with resentment, as though there perhaps had been no genuine ailment at all—blaming her mother, justly or unjustly. The ages and dates given in the novel determine that Jessica married Tom in 1954, the same year that Gordimer married for the second time. The presence of a Jewish character in the novel may reflect the fact that Gordimer’s father was a Russian Jew.

Of primary interest is Jessica’s development as a character, regardless of her relationship to the author. She is shown at the end of the book with Morgan, having found a way to communicate with him without embarrassment, and she has softened toward her mother as well. Her relationship with Tom was not bad to start with, but now it has deepened in consequence of her observations of Ann, Gideon, and Boaz. Very early in the novel, she had spoken of Tom and herself: “They had married to share life; but, of course, there was no getting out of it, even by marriage: each must live his life for himself.” True indeed. Ann, however, has taken this logic to a point beyond what Jessica can accept. Furthermore, “living one’s life for himself”...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jessica (Jessie) Stilwell

Jessica (Jessie) Stilwell, a secretary to an agency for African musicians and entertainers, then later a part-time secretary to a company administering a private nursing home. Thirty-eight-year-old Jessie, still attractive, is married to Tom Stilwell, with whom she has three daughters, Clemence, Madge, and Elisabeth. She also has a son, Morgan, from a previous marriage that ended with the death of her husband in the war. Perceptive and thoughtful, she is also self-involved. Her relationship with Morgan, whom she has largely ignored, is troubled, as is her relationship with her mother. When Tom suggests opening their house to Boaz and Ann Davis, who need a place to live, she is at first reluctant, fearing invasion of her privacy. After the Davises move in, she introduces Ann to Len Mafolo. Later, when Ann and her black lover, Gideon Shibalo, arrive unexpectedly at the beach cottage where Jessie is spending precious private days with her daughters, Jessie is dismayed at the interruption. The relationship between Gideon and Ann forces Jessie to examine her own liberal politics.

Tom Stilwell

Tom Stilwell, a senior university lecturer in history, fair, bearded, and in his thirties. Tom has been working on a history of Africa. Liberal in politics, he is also a loving husband and father, concerned about Morgan. He persuades Jessie to welcome the Davises to their house.

Boaz Davis

Boaz Davis (BOH-az), a music scholar. A thin, thirty-year-old Jew, Boaz left South Africa ten years previously to train as a composer. He has returned to Johannesburg with his wife, Ann, to study African music and musical instruments. Absorbed by his research, he travels frequently. When Ann becomes involved in a love affair with Gideon Shibalo, his political sensitivity to Gideon’s race inhibits his reaction. He tolerates the situation as Ann and Gideon...

(The entire section is 801 words.)