At Play in the Fields of the Lord Characters

Peter Matthiessen

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Just as the plot does not fulfill the romantic expectations of the adventure story, so too the characters of At Play in the Fields of the Lord belie the stereotypes and idealizations of romantic characters. Matthiessen’s characters are naturalistic creatures whose behavior is usually determined by environment.

The environment in which the characters move, the jungle and the river towns upon its fringes, are overwhelming and hostile physical presences. This description of Madre de Dios typifies the difficult stage upon which these actors must play out their fates: It “formed a yellow scar in the green waste. With its litter of rust and rotting thatch and mud, the capital of Oriente State resembled a great trash heap, smoking sullenly in the monotony of rivers.” The landscape is the antagonist of everyone in the novel; it constantly assaults the senses and the spirits of these characters. Ultimately the landscape triumphs over both the indigenous and the intruders.

The Niaruna are creatures of the rain forest who resist easy labeling. They are not noble savages inhabiting some remote and primeval Eden: The jungle is too harsh to be a garden. By hunting and cultivating, the Niaruna find enough to live on, but no surplus. The Indians are constantly alert to combat the dangers from animals, poisonous plants, and rival tribes. Their humanity is fragile: As Aeore points out to Moon, the Niaruna paint their bodies because, in the jungle, how else can human beings distinguish themselves from the animals?

On the other hand, though primitive in technology and social organization by the intruders’ standards, the Niaruna are neither ignorant barbarians nor Satan worshipers. They have adapted ingeniously to the rhythm of the jungle, knowledgeably working the land in both dry season and rainy season, cunningly harvesting the river in its rising and falling stages. The Niaruna possess a stoic philosophy that enables them to accept privation, injury, and death without self-pity. Moon marvels, for example, at the quiet dignity of the Indians as Boronai, on his deathbed, receives a last respectful visit from each tribesman.

The citizens of Madre de Dios also reflect their environment. As...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Meriwether Lewis Moon

Meriwether Lewis Moon, a Cheyenne veteran of World War II, now a soldier of fortune in quest of a significant purpose for his life equivalent to the spiritual relationship of his Indian ancestors with the natural world. Moon is an alienated rebel, driven by a combination of fierce pride and guilt about being an Indian. After fleeing the college to which he had been sent as a representative of his people, he wandered the world and now finds himself in a fictional South American country in the Amazon jungle. In need of gasoline for their airplane, he and his sidekick, Wolfie, agree to bomb a village of the local unchristianized Niaruna Indians, who are hindering the progress of cutting down the forest. Moon’s affinity with the Indians is kindled during a reconnaissance flight, when an Indian defiantly shoots an arrow at his plane. Shortly thereafter, forsaking the ways of civilization, he joins the Niaruna to aid them in their battle against annihilation.

Martin Quarrier

Martin Quarrier, a Christian missionary in his thirties, from the Dakotas. He is sent to aid in the “civilizing” of the Niaruna Indians. Martin’s interest in anthropology, as well as in religion, makes him more sympathetic to the Indians than the other missionaries. After the death of his son, Martin becomes more interested in understanding and protecting the Indians than in converting them. He is a good, if clumsy, man whose religious beliefs are tempered by his experience. He abandons the mission, and his wife, in a futile, sacrificial attempt to save the Niaruna.

Commandante Rufino Guzmán

Commandante Rufino Guzmán (koh-mahn-DAHN-tay rew-FEE-noh gewz-MAHN), the prefect (principal local government authority), head of the military police, and main property owner of the province. An intelligent but coarse person, more interested in his own well-being than that of the people he governs, he is a dangerous man, ruthless in his exercise of power. Guzmán is eager to bomb the Niaruna to advance his...

(The entire section is 884 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Matthiessen supplies a number of secondary characters here who offer a constellation of responses to the situation outlined above, and who...

(The entire section is 136 words.)