Oxherding Tale Characters
Andrew Hawkins, the narrator and protagonist, begins as an enslaved person on a South Carolina cotton plantation; his greatest desire is to buy his own freedom and that of his family. As a young man, Andrew feels superior to other slaves because he is biracial; his light skin allows him to pass as white. An intelligent, educated person, he also feels superior to many whites. The novel follows him after he leaves plantation life when he is 20.
George Hawkins, Andrew’s father, is a butler in the house on the plantation, called Cripplegate. Drinking with his apparently easy-going master, Jonathan Polkinghorne, George is fooled into imagining their near equality; this leads to his sleeping with the mistress, who gives birth to Andrew. After George is banished from the house and forced to herd oxen instead, he suffers from depression.
Mattie Hawkins is George’s wife, who raises Andrew as her own son but cannot forgive George’s behavior.
Ezekiel Sykes-Withers is Andrew’s tutor whom Jonathan hires to teach him for seven years. The boy learns Latin, Greek, and philosophy.
Minty is the daughter of a maid of the plantation. Andrew falls in love with her and determines to buy her freedom.
Flo Hatfield, a middle-aged widow, owns a large farm, Leviathan, which she has inherited. Jonathan sends Andrew there to work, assuming she will take him as her lover. She has a reputation for killing former lovers, but Andrew is sent to work in the mines.
Reb, called the Coffinmaker, is a carpenter at Leviathan. When he takes Andrew’s side in a dispute with Flo, she sends him to the mines as well. The two men escape on the way.
Horace Bannon, the “Soulcatcher,” is a slave-hunter who Flo Hatfield sends to pursue Andrew and Reb. He kills Andrew’s father and then stops searching for Andrew.
Peggy Undercliff, an upper-class young white woman, meets Andrew in Spartansburg while he is passing. They marry and have a child.
Gerald Undercliff, a physician, is Peggy’s father. He learns that Andrew is passing, but rather than expose him, he promotes his marriage to Peggy.
Andrew Hawkins, of course, is by far the most important and complex figure in Oxherding Tale. The characters of what might be called the supporting cast appear sequentially, often for a chapter or two at a time, each figure portrayed engagingly, wittily, but quickly, in the mode of a series of sketches. However, the supporting cast cannot be said to consist simply of flat characters, for the author is interested in the intersubjective dimensions of identity, in the degree to which Andrew’s selfhood is bound up in an ever-shifting web of relationships. This element is clearly marked in the novel’s preoccupation with telepathy and transcendentalism, and it accounts in part for the novel’s episodic yet unified plot structure.
The characterization of Andrew himself is achieved largely through the language of his first-person narrative. Andrew’s discursive perspective is wryly authoritative and urbanely observational, a frank departure from the tone of most picaresque narratives of youth. Such novels often attribute to their youthful protagonists a charming naïveté, improvisational verbal dexterity, and, underlying all else, an innocent, unspoiled wisdom. Johnson partakes of this tendency only to the extent that he deploys a protagonist whose utterances within the novel’s dialogue are dextrous, capable of trickster-like dissembling. Andrew’s narrative voice, though, rarely betrays a naïveté concerning his circumstances.
In a uniquely existential perspective on whirlwind, life-threatening adventures, Andrew’s tone as narrator is musing, detached, and skeptical. His propensity for interiorized reflection—amidst a plot line comparable to those of nineteenth century melodramatic narratives—contributes an ironic counterpoint to suspenseful, dramatic exterior action and thickens the linguistic texture of the novel.
Ezekiel is typical of the characters of the supporting cast in the sense...
(The entire section is 2,143 words.)