The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 511 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Andrew Hawkins, the narrator of Oxherding Tale, is an extremely intelligent, pragmatic man. He is always eager to experience all aspects of life and to learn from others. Although he comes across as a prig early in the novel—he feels himself superior to all the slaves and most of the masters—by the end of the story he has grown into a character with whom a reader can empathize. Charles Johnson certainly intended this feeling of empathy, as the readers of Oxherding Tale are to learn from Andrew’s experiences just as Andrew himself learned from them. Andrew is not to be seen as a “real” character, however; instead, Johnson intends his protagonist to stand as a metaphor, a character whose adventures are allegorical. Woven into the character of Andrew are various philosophical threads that reinforce points Johnson wants to make in his novel. All this taken together means that Andrew never comes to life or seems like a real person.

George Hawkins, Andrew’s father and first teacher, is nothing more than a stereotype in the novel. A radical black nationalist convinced that all whites are evil, he eventually leads a slave revolt at Cripplegate. Horace Bannon tracks him easily because George’s soul is so full of hate that he can never hide. In the end, he begs Horace to kill him because the hate he bears is too much to carry any longer.

Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, Andrew’s second teacher, is portrayed as a fool because he...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Andrew Hawkins

Andrew Hawkins, the main character and the novel’s narrator. Andrew is a young slave of mixed blood whose driving ambition is to acquire his freedom and earn enough money to buy the freedom of his father, his stepmother, and his beloved Minty. Rigorously educated by his own tutor, Andrew is exceptionally intelligent and sophisticated. The moral decisions that he must make during his quest for freedom are complicated by the fact that he is light-skinned enough to pass as white. At the age of twenty, he leaves the cotton plantation where he was reared in hopes of securing freedom. His story is thereafter a series of episodic adventures that ultimately lead to his compromised freedom.

George Hawkins

George Hawkins, Andrew’s father, a butler at Cripplegate, a South Carolina cotton plantation. George enjoys an easy camaraderie with his master, Jonathan Polkinghorne; the two men often drink together. One night, after having shared considerable amounts of wine and beer, Jonathan suggests that they retire to each other’s beds. As a result, George conceives Andrew with his master’s wife, who disavows her son after giving birth. George is thereafter banished from the house and demoted to oxherding, losing his respected standing among the slaves and sinking into a disgruntled torpor.

Mattie Hawkins

Mattie Hawkins, George’s wife and Andrew’s stepmother. Mattie takes the infant George into her home and treats him as her own. A deeply religious woman, she turns permanently cold toward George after his infidelity.

Ezekiel Sykes-Withers


(The entire section is 681 words.)