Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645
Most of the characters in October Light are made to stand for clear-cut, uncompromising political or philosophical positions—positions which they feel driven to expound even when their lives are in danger. Between them, for example, the two main characters exhibit all the conflicting aspects of New England Puritan virtue: Sally, the relentless optimist with a strong drive for progress; James, the relentlessly plodding worker with a seeming incapacity to express any deep emotion other than anger or suspicion of “liberals.” Gardner’s characterizations thus bring to life the “polarization” that was much discussed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, though his narrative suggests that this polarization has deep historical roots. The fact that the two antagonists also are brother and sister underscores this tragedy of irreconcilables.
Some characters are aware of contradictions within themselves but are not able to reconcile them. One such figure is Lewis Hicks, Ginny’s husband, who emerges as an improbable hero:Right and wrong were as elusive as odors in an old abandoned barn. Lewis knew no certainties. . . . He had no patience with people’s complexities . . . not because people were foolish, in Lewis Hicks’ opinion, or because they got through life on gross and bigoted oversimplifications, though they did, he knew, but because . . . he could too easily see all sides and, more often than not, no hint of a solution.
It is ironic that Lewis can see all sides of a question and still feel intolerant of other people’s complexities.
Paradoxically, it is the minor characters—memorable far beyond their importance in the story—who are most fully rounded through their own conscious effort. The librarian Ruth Thomas literally embodies contradiction: Weighing three hundred pounds, she is the soul of gracefulness. Her voice is at once clear ringing and seductive, “like an unsubmergeably strong piano with the soft pedal pressed to the carpet.” Gardner suggests that the comic sense is a key to controlling oneself and reconciling inner contradictions: The impish Ruth has “learned to limit herself for hours at a time to nothing more outlandish than a clever, perhaps slightly overstated mimicry of primness.”
Even when Gardner’s major characters insist on acting like “flat” characters, he has a genius for showing them as fully rounded people with deep integrity and with rich inner lives. This is accomplished partly through interior monologue, partly through the portrayal of one character’s awakening sympathy for another. Sally is able to imagine Richard (James’s son who committed suicide) “inside his life.” Seeing her father, Ginny can sense “from inside him what it was like to be old, uncomfortable, cheated, ground down by life and sick to death of it. . . . Dad, I’m sorry,’ she said.”
Although this novel amply portrays the tragedy of polarization, there are repeated strong suggestions that it is the sum of individual extremes that leads to balance in the world. After all, if Sally and James together embody the contradictions of the New England character, then both are required to present the gamut of its virtues. If one looks closely at the individual character, one observes flaws and imperfections. Stepping back, however, one observes a harmonious “symphony” of characters.
Perhaps it is this implied notion of balance in the whole, rather than in its parts, that accounts for the seemingly flawed characterization of Sally. As a party to the central conflict of the story, she is the most fully realized of the female characters, and yet, unlike any other character, she fails to outgrow her limitations. She learns little from the desperate conflict with her brother; indeed, despite her “humanitarian” pretensions, she never develops true compassion for him. She simply comes out of the room thinking she has won a moral victory. Yet, smug as she remains, she has proved an effective catalyst for James’s growth, which gives the novel a satisfying denouement.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
James Page, a stubbornly conservative, belligerently independent Vermont farmer, seventy-three years old. He is so antimodern that he destroys his sister’s television set, then locks her in her bedroom with a shotgun facing her door. Part of his anger comes from his son Richard’s suicide, which he takes to be a sign of weakness. Nor has he ever forgotten Uncle Ira, who shot himself. James considers himself a rugged descendant of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. He is gripped by chronic constipation. When he almost causes his friend Ed Thomas’ death by fright, he begins to be less uptight and to understand brother-in-law Horace’s accidental death. Later, purged of anger, he finds it impossible to shoot a black bear in search of a honeycomb.
Ariah Page, James’s former wife, an exceedingly plain woman, now dead. She was often beaten by James yet remained gentle. She never explained to her husband why their son killed himself. Her silence was not the result of vindictiveness but rather of a pledge of secrecy.
Sally Page Abbott
Sally Page Abbott, James’s progressive, eighty-year-old sister. While she is locked up, she reads a fantastic paperback novel, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, and lives on apples only. As a result, she suffers from diarrhea. A basket of those apples placed over her door to fall on James, should he try to enter, injures instead the head of the Pages’ daughter, Ginny. Sally relents, ready to be reconciled.
Horace Abbott, Sally’s dentist husband, who died of a heart attack twenty years previously. He thought his personal tolerance should be extended to the entire nation, in the name of democracy.
Richard Page, James’s son. Overwhelmed by his father’s stern expectations, he hanged himself at the age of twenty-five, twenty years before the time of the novel. Earlier, he had been accused by James of leaning a ladder against the barn roof, from which his younger brother then accidentally fell to his death. As if to confirm that he is death-prone, one Halloween he unwittingly frightened his Uncle Horace into having a fatal heart attack. He did not dare confess this accident to anyone except his mother, Ariah, whom he swore to secrecy.
Virginia (Ginny) Page Hicks
Virginia (Ginny) Page Hicks, James’s grown daughter, who sympathizes with her Aunt Sally’s fight for equal rights within the family home. She calls her father medieval and her Aunt Sally modern. Trying to play the peacemaker, she suffers a hairline fracture when the basket of apples hits her head.
Lewis Hicks, a swamp-Yankee handyman. His part-Indian origins give him a sense of nature’s interlocking dependencies and help him quiet the differences between James and Sally.
Dickey Hicks, a nine-year-old who was adopted by Ginny and named after her brother Richard, whom everyone, except James, liked. Irrationally, Dickey feels somehow responsible for the quarrel between his elders. He finds the paperback discarded by James and leaves it where Sally finally finds it.
Estelle Parks, age eighty-three, who enjoyed teaching literature to children of her former students. Late in life, she wed a mathematics professor from Bennington College; he died in a car accident eight years later. She tries to mediate between James and Sally by bringing the entire neighborhood to the Page farm for singing and dancing.
The Reverend Lane Walker
The Reverend Lane Walker, who once marched with Father Hernandez in the antiracist demonstrations at Selma. He tries to make peace by suggesting that apes descended from human beings. He claims that the latter act more primitively than other primates, as self-destructive human inventions tend to prove.
Father Rafe Hernandez
Father Rafe Hernandez, a Tucson priest who asks to be tolerated as he tries to abide the New England accent.
Ruth Thomas, the village librarian, who used to read the classics to Horace while he milked.
Ed Thomas, her husband, who believes that he may have to sell his dairy because his heart will not last. James’s sudden appearance, with shotgun ready, brings on Ed’s attack. He explains to James later, in the hospital, that television can be a useful way of provoking thought and providing many points of view, especially at election time. His regret that he may not live until Spring’s unlocking-time helps James come to terms with his dead son Richard, whom he had always loved in his own rough way and whom he still misses.
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