Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Joel Knox, a thirteen-year-old entering puberty. He is bright, beautiful, and in need of love and acceptance from someone who “belongs” to him. He is a boy in search of someone to be “with.” He goes eagerly to Skully’s Landing when his father, out of the blue, invites him there to live. Because he is so bright and insightful, his misjudgment of Ellen is puzzling. When she does not respond to the letter he mailed her saying that he hates the Landing, he thinks she has rejected him, but he had found, scattered on the ground, the coins he put in the mailbox, so it seems odd that he thought she got the letter. Likewise, at the end of the novel, when he learns that a woman and a deaf girl from New Orleans have been at the Landing, it does not cross his mind to think it could have been Ellen and Louise, although he immediately says he has a deaf cousin in New Orleans. Perhaps Truman Capote wanted Joel blind in his spot of greatest need; perhaps Joel deliberately blinds himself rather than ponder, too much, that he had decided he and Randolph were “the same.”
Cousin Randolph, who seems to be a patient, laissez-faire person. He is openly homosexual and entices Joel into a relationship, but he never forces himself on anyone. He generally gives everyone what they ask from him—even his cousin, Amy, though he enjoys tormenting her before acquiescing. The servants, Zoo and Papadaddy, do as they please, with no interference from Randolph. Zoo leaves “forever” after Papadaddy dies, but she comes back after she is raped and brutalized. Although she is different, he treats her the same. Even with Joel, he does not push. Except at the novel’s end, when Ellen is coming, he gives Joel complete freedom of movement, asking nothing from him. When Joel is ill and being nursed by Randolph, he entertains the boy endlessly. When Joel clings to Randolph in victimlike dependency, the man does not press his advantage. Indeed, he gives every appearance of despairing that Joel will ever respond as he wishes, yet he remains patient. Dark hints suggest a different Randolph, however, but Capote keeps readers outside his inner thoughts. One dark hint is his cold—almost amused—telling of Zoo’s wedding night, as if he manipulated Keg’s action. Another is Amy’s attitude toward him: She seems frantic to please him but never quite does, and in spite of giving in to her small requests, there is a sense of his enjoying her anxiety.
Idabel Thompkins, Joel’s tomboy friend, who works hard at hating being a girl. She beats her twin sister, and she hits Joel when, in a burst of tenderness, he kisses her cheek. Like Joel, she is a displaced person. Wisteria says as much, implying that the reason Idabel has fallen for her is because she thinks herself a freak, like Wisteria. Indeed, at the fair, Idabel is moved by a two-headed baby pickled in a jar. The implication is that, as a twin so different from the frilly Florabel, she is a two-headed freak. At the fair, Joel and Idabel get separated; the next Joel hears from her is through a postcard from Alabama, where she has been sent “for life.” The card comes as Joel is deciding that Randolph is the only one who loves him, and he tosses the card into the fire. He immediately regrets doing so, but the card is gone forever, like Idabel.
Zoo Fever, the black cook who seems to have been at the Landing all her life. Randolph and Amy both remember the night of her marriage to Keg Brown, ten years earlier, when she was fourteen. Zoo, a supple, slender woman who always wears a scarf around her long neck, is superstitiously religious. The scarf hides a scar that encircles her neck where Keg slit it on their wedding night. At first, she nurtures Joel, but she leaves for Washington, D.C. When she comes back, both she and Joel have changed.
Ellen Kendall, Joel’s aunt, who loved him and let him go to the Landing. She comes to see if he is happy. Randolph learns she is coming and rushes Joel off to Little Sunshine’s. Amy tells Ellen and Louise, Joel’s deaf cousin, that Joel and Randolph are on a long squirrel hunt. Evidently convinced that Joel is happy, they leave.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217
As the novel begins, Joel Harrison Knox, the twelve-year-old protagonist, is trying to make his way to Skully's Landing and to his father. In New Orleans Joel considered himself an outsider, especially after the death of his mother, but he soon discovers that he is also isolated at Skully's Landing. Intimidated by his stepmother and disillusioned by his father's weakness, he tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the aunt he has left behind and later to run away with his friend Idabel. In the course of the novel, Joel tries out a number of relationships, most of them with people he considers stronger than he and, therefore, perhaps capable of making him feel loved and safe. Although he appreciates the ministrations of Randolph and Missouri, he eventually learns that no one can really protect him; only when he takes control of his own path and assumes responsibility for guiding Randolph does he finally become a relatively secure adult.
Ed Samson has been the subject of many of his son's fantasies, but when Joel finally meets his father, he discovers that Ed has been paralyzed since being shot by Randolph Lee. Capable of saying only a few words, Ed communicates primarily by bouncing balls across the room and down the steps. Joel decides that only Ed's eyes are really alive, and he begins to believe his father's eyes can follow him anywhere and can see his every move and even his thoughts. Clearly Ed can provide neither the family ties nor the security that Joel is seeking; for the son, his father serves merely to increase Joel's guilt and reinforce his isolation.
Amy Skully married Ed Samson for two principal reasons: to rescue Randolph Lee from a situation out of his control, but also finally to have someone totally dependent upon her. On Joel's first morning at the Landing, she chases a blue jay with a poker, deliberately paralyzing it to provide the feathers Randolph wants for his artificial bird. As Joel comes to realize, Amy humors Randolph's every whim, pleading with him to allow her an occasional pleasure such as playing the pianola. Throughout the novel, Amy continues to alternate between authoritarian treatment of Joel and petulant childishness in her dealings with Randolph, thus exhibiting an odd mixture of strength and weakness. Joel quickly learns that he can expect no emotional support from her.
Amy's cousin, Randolph Lee, appears, first and last, as a shadowy figure in an upstairs window. A would-be artist, Randolph explains that he lacks the "personal perception" and the "interior life" to be anything more than a skilled copyist, and impersonating his dead mother may be his highest artistic achievement. Watching him construct a blue jay from the body parts of birds Amy has killed for him, Joel observes that his bird may be beautiful but it lacks life. Randolph too generally seems to be an artificial construct; repeatedly he proves that he is both weak and selfish. Only once has he actually formed an emotional attachment to anyone: briefly he lived with Dolores, who introduced him to a fighter named Pepe Alvarez. When Dolores and Pepe deserted him, Randolph realized that he cared more for Pepe than for Dolores. By shooting Pepe's manager, Ed Samson, and then bringing Samson back to Skully's Landing, Randolph was able to hold on to the smallest vestige of Pepe, but the true extent of his obsession is revealed when he tells Joel that he has sent Pepe letters in care of the postmasters of all the cities listed in his world atlas. Although Joel tries to escape him, Randolph is the person who nurses the sick boy back to health, and finally Joel seems to replace Pepe as Randolph's emotional anchor. At the same time, realizing Randolph's dependence upon him leads Joel toward maturity.
Soon after arriving at Skully's Landing, Joel meets the Thompkins twins, the tomboy Idabel and the ladylike Florabel. Just as Idabel prides herself on her sarcastic comments and unconventional behavior, Florabel brags about her family's possessions and social status. Most of the time, Florabel complains that Idabel embarrasses the family, but at times she seems secretly proud of her rebellious sibling. Initially, Joel prefers the more conventional Florabel, but increasingly he is drawn to Idabel, who demands that he treat her like a boy. When the two of them run away, Idabel increasingly assumes the masculine role, and seems to regard Joel as a buddy. He feels the same toward her, almost like male bonding. When they meet Miss Wisteria, who is both childlike and feminine, Idabel is sexually attracted to her. When Idabel appears to have deserted him, Joel realizes that his relationship with her cannot give him the needed sense of belonging, and he allows her postcard to be tossed into the fire. Miss Wisteria appears to be interested in seducing Joel, but he has discovered that he is attracted to Randolph.
In Noon City, Joel meets Jesus Fever, an ancient black man who lives at Skully's Landing with his granddaughter, Missouri. Jesus Fever, who is believed to be nearly one hundred years old, provides a moral balance for Missouri and Joel, insisting that they participate in his religious services. Jesus believes that God has taken his wife and child in order to punish him for accepting the informal marriage ritual performed by Randolph's grandfather. In contrast, Missouri's marriage— as described by Randolph— was a formal ceremony, but Keg Brown is in prison for trying to cut her throat, and Missouri lives in fear that he will return and this time will kill her.
Through most of the novel Missouri provides emotional support for Joel, who seems to regard her as a surrogate mother. In addition to relating the history of the family and the area, she comforts and encourages Joel, promising to send for him as soon as she is settled. When she returns, however, Missouri is a changed person; her spirited personality has been replaced by listlessness, accented occasionally by flashes of her grandfather's religious fervor. When she walks away from him in the garden, Joel realizes that he cannot count upon her for love or protection.
Following Missouri's example, Joel seeks a charm from the local hermit, Little Sunshine, who lives in the ruins of the Cloud Hotel because—he tells Joel— when he tried to leave, "other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams." Little Sunshine claims that his charms will protect the wearer from all dangers, so long as that person never mentions the charm. During their visit to the hotel, Joel learns that, throughout his own childhood, Randolph frequently came to the hotel with his drawing books. Obviously Little Sunshine's charms have not been adequate to provide the sense of security Randolph needs.
A minor, yet significant, character is Miss Wisteria, the midget from the carnival sideshow. To some extent she resembles Florabel in personality, especially as she brags about her cultured background. Like Florabel, Miss Wisteria tries to seduce Joel, but he considers her threatening, even repulsive. He particularly resents Mabel's obvious infatuation with her; thus, he hides from both of them, first by entering the abandoned house, and later by his illness. Because he believes Idabel has gone away with Miss Wisteria, he completely severs his relationship with this friend.