Plains Song, for Female Voices Characters

Wright Morris

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Cora Atkins

Cora Atkins, who is six feet tall, lean, and blonde, with an English complexion totally unsuited to the climate of the Great Plains. She moves from the East with her new husband to a farm in northeastern Nebraska. Her husband is always a stranger to her, and she to him. Firm and implacable, with her emotions always hidden, she is fenced off from others, epitomizing the isolated farm woman who finds grim satis-faction in the fact that her hard physical work is never done. Her marriage includes only one sexual act, which so horrifies her that she bites her knuckle to the bone. Cora is not a martyr, however; she is entirely self-sufficient. A limited woman with a limited life, she sets her own limits. Only once does her action go beyond her own control, when her niece Sharon outrages her so much that she strikes the girl’s hand with a hairbrush. Hers is the dominant voice in the book.

Sharon Rose Atkins

Sharon Rose Atkins, Cora and Emerson’s niece. Orphaned early, she is reared as a sister to her cousin Madge. Small, dark, and animated, she is almost the antithesis of either Cora or her daughter. She rebels against Cora’s restrictions and feels betrayed when Madge marries. As much an egotist as Cora, she escapes the rural Nebraska life through her music, first in Chicago, then later as a professor at Wellesley. It is only when she returns at Cora’s death that she understands and admires Cora for her independence and her ability to come to terms with her life.

Emerson Atkins

Emerson Atkins, Cora’s husband. A silent plodder, the Nebraska homesteader is usually bewildered by life and by Cora. She sets the limits in their life; he accepts them. He balks at modern mechanization; he is not sure, for example, that chickens and cows will accept electric lights. His most memorable act is to run government men off his farm during...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cora and Sharon are the most fully developed female characters in Morris’s fiction. On the surface, they are complete opposites, but they share some qualities. Perhaps recognition of these is part of what frightens Sharon.

The six-foot, humorless Cora accepts all the duties of a farmwife but one, biting through her hand on her wedding night, her scar becoming representative of the emotional distance between her and her bewildered husband and of her particular individuality and independence. As with the most complex Morris characters, Cora’s strengths and weaknesses merge to become almost indistinguishable.

Cora is not very affectionate toward her daughter and the nieces she must rear after Belle’s death. Unable to cope with emotional complications, Cora imposes order on her life by reducing it to a simple level that she can control: “Cora had little desire to see more than she had already seen, or feel more than she had already felt.” She convinces herself that her life makes sense, that it is what God intends her to have: “Chickens, people, and eggs had their appointed places, chores their appointed time, changes their appointed seasons, the night its appointed sleep.” All this, however, does not stop her from experiencing a strange sense of guilt for having peace of mind.

In Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair, she cannot bring herself to visit Sharon as there is no possibility of exerting control over her niece on...

(The entire section is 571 words.)