The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ellen MacNamara embodies many of the worst aspects of Irish culture and experience. Although she is bright, opinionated, and outspoken by nature, her childhood taught her concealment, shame, insularity, and anger. She has not adopted the American Dream, the pursuit of happiness: “She’d never believed in happiness. The mention of it put her in a fury.” Although a voracious reader, passionately interested in the outside world, she shrinks her own universe to claustrophobic dimensions, allowing none but family and the closest friends inside her home.

Vincent, on the other hand, embodies more positive aspects of the Irish character. Despite a difficult childhood in the old country, plagued by an older brother who hated him and drove him from home, he did not carry anger and bitterness with him to the new world. Although not as sharp and quick as his wife, he is kinder and more decent. Outgoing and friendly, he finds life at the nursing home refreshingly sociable and relaxed after his intense and confined life with Ellen.

Theresa Dooley is the product of Ellen’s coldness and indifference as a mother. A medical secretary and a charismatic Catholic, she poisons everyone around her with bitterness, anger, and jealousy. Believing she is blessed with the power to heal, she spitefully withholds this “gift” from her dying mother. Her children—John, a Vietnam veteran unable to hold a job or a marriage together; Sheila, an unlikeable,...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Vincent MacNamara

Vincent MacNamara, an eighty-eight-year-old Irish immigrant. He is devout, intelligent, and loved by most people who meet him. He acts as the main cohesive force of his large family. Vincent loves his fiery wife, Ellen, but he no longer feels able to cope with her anger and fear. He is returning home, having spent nearly nine months in a nursing home after Ellen knocked him down and broke his hip. Vincent always has led a moral life and enjoys mechanical problems to occupy his mind. He loves his children and especially his grandchildren, Camille and Dan. Now, at the end of his life, he fears that he has allowed his wife to damage their children with her demands and contempt. At the same time, he remembers with joy the passionate love he and Ellen have shared. His promise to her that she will be allowed to die at home forces him to return to her.

Ellen MacNamara

Ellen MacNamara, Vincent’s wife. More than ninety years old, she is incoherent and bedridden from a series of strokes. She can understand only that Vincent seems to have left her. In her rage and terror, she can speak only curses and obscenities. As a young woman in Ireland, when she saw her father abusing her mother, she used her anger as an impetus to emigrate; she feels the same anger and contempt for the church. Her anger makes her treat most strangers as enemies. Her commitment to intellectual and social causes made her dismiss her two rather ordinary daughters; she often humiliated them and at last psychologically abandoned them in favor of two of her grandchildren, both of whom she stole from their mothers. She retains tenderness primarily for her grandson Dan, whose father was killed in World War II. Vincent has been the only positive force in her life, but his generous love makes her fear that even after sixty years of marriage he may well leave her. Her rage and urge to destroy her family are qualities that have reappeared in her offspring.


(The entire section is 813 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While the narrative portrays fragmentary incidents from the lives of a number of characters, the central interest is in the history of the...

(The entire section is 682 words.)