Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
James Callifer, an employee of a provincial newspaper in central England. Although he is in his mid-forties, he is immature, self-centered, diffident, and occasionally suicidal. He is seeing a psychiatrist, who is trying to help him cope with feelings that life is meaningless, that he is a failure, that he is incapable of loving another human being, and that he has been rejected by his family for some dark deed that he has suppressed from consciousness. In this highly symbolic play, the protagonist represents modern humanity, which has lost its way because of its abandonment of religious faith.
Mrs. Callifer, an upper-middle-class housewife, the mother of James and John. At the age of seventy, she is still a handsome, dignified woman. She has devoted her life to the service of her husband, who was once an internationally noted writer of rationalist, atheistic works in the spirit of George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell but has faded into obscurity. After her husband’s death offstage in the first scene of the play, she realizes that he was a weak man who needed her protection and that he was not only cruel but also intellectually dishonest. She confesses to James that she has kept him away from his father for many years because H. C. Callifer’s entire belief system as well as his published works and reputation had been jeopardized by a “miracle” that occurred in the potting shed thirty years earlier.
John Callifer, a prosperous banker roughly fifty years old. In striking contrast to his younger brother, James, John is pompous, self-assured, and insensitive. His main function in the play is to represent what his father must have been like in his prime. Having adopted all of his father’s views, John has never troubled to have a serious philosophical thought. Like many modern men of affairs, his way of coping with existential questions is to ignore them.
Anne Callifer, a thirteen-year-old student. This pretty and precocious daughter of the widowed John is a product of enlightened views about education and child rearing. Having been taught to reject religion and believe only in facts, she has become almost too headstrong for her elders to manage. She functions as a catalyst. It is she who, entirely on her own initiative, telegraphs her Uncle James about his father’s approaching death. Later, she locates Mrs. Potter, who gives James information that enables him to relive his devastating childhood trauma. Anne symbolizes the future of humanity: It can become more spiritually alienated through rational skepticism or regain its capacity for joy and love through a leap of faith.
Father William Callifer
Father William Callifer, an elderly, alcoholic Catholic priest. For many years, he has been unwelcome at his brother H. C. Callifer’s home because of his conversion to Catholicism. There is a stronger reason for his rejection, however, and its revelation forms the play’s climax. When James was fourteen years old, he tried to hang himself in the potting shed because his father, through scornful mockery and rationalist arguments, had destroyed his faith in God. Father Callifer prayed to God to bring James back to life and offered in exchange for the boy’s life the only thing of any value he possessed: his religious faith. James revived by a seeming miracle, but William has functioned ever since as an alcoholic priest without faith in his vocation. After the loving reunion between uncle and nephew, both regain their belief in God and a meaningful universe.
Sara Callifer, James’s former wife, an attractive woman of thirty-six. She resembles her...
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former husband in being joyless and adrift. She is still in love with James but was divorced from him because he was emotionally dead. She symbolizes the death of love between the sexes that results from atheism and materialism. After James regains his religious faith, he proposes that they remarry, telling her that he is now capable of human love.
Dr. Frederick Baston
Dr. Frederick Baston, H. C. Callifer’s physician and disciple. A small, fussy, pedantic man in his sixties, Baston serves as a comic figure who represents the rationalist tradition.
Dr. Kreuzer, James’s elderly psychiatrist. He represents the ineffectiveness of science in resolving the deepest problems of the human soul.
Mrs. Potter, the widow of the Callifers’ old family gardener. She gives James the first insight into what really happened to him in the potting shed.