October Light Characters
by John Gardner Jr.

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The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,406 words.)