Last Updated on August 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524
The Boy is sixteen years old. He has a skeptical attitude and is often rude and contemptuous in his remarks to the Old Man. He sometimes seems to doubt his father’s sanity as the Old Man describes the house’s contents, and he eventually realizes that his father is describing things from memory. The pair are not remotely wealthy. The Boy is both fascinated by the Old Man’s mentions of luxury in the family’s previous life and resentful that he has not enjoyed any such benefits. He learns that his father burned down the house with his own father (the Boy's grandfather) inside; furthermore, at that time, his father had been sixteen as well. The Boy feels intense envy for the material advantages he never had, leading him to try to steal money from his father while the Old Man is lost in his reminiscences. It is this attempted theft that prompts the Old Man to kill him.
The Old Man
The Old Man is apparently a vagrant, as he and the Boy are endlessly wandering. He is stuck in the past and does not formulate any future plans for the two of them. He still retains considerable resentment toward his parents for having squandered their wealth and feels he should have inherited more of it. His memories of life in the house before it burned down include his father’s profligate lifestyle, as well as the (perhaps imaginary) vision of them having sex. Rather than showing care and concern for his son, his attitude toward the Boy is hostile; he calls him a bastard. He even tells him he was conceived in a ditch. When he catches him taking money, he becomes enraged and stabs him to death with the same knife he killed his own father with. Afterward, his fragile grasp of reality is further displayed by his conversations with his mother’s ghost. He seems somewhat oblivious to the fact that, like himself, his son sought inheritance from a father who was less than ideal.
The Old Man’s Mother
The Old Man’s mother, formerly a wealthy young woman, risked it all to marry her family’s horse groomer. After becoming pregnant, she died in childbirth. Now, in death, she relives the night of her wedding and the conception of the Old Man. She is both haunted by the Old Man’s conception and by her decision to marry his father. She appears trapped in a purgatory of sorts. Even though the Old Man kills his son to bring her spirit to rest, she still appears on the grounds.
The Old Man’s Father
The Old Man’s father spiraled after the death of his wife. He wasted her wealth and begins drinking to excess. He is trapped in a house fire that he sets, and ultimately meets his end when the Old Man (then sixteen) stabs him. He is a greedy squanderer and now haunts the grounds on the anniversary of the wedding. His presence is known through hoofbeats—the sound of his horse heading to the now burned-down house to meet his wife.