A Quality of Mercy Characters
by Paul West

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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Camden is a realistic character given a fairly straightforward development in a series of interchapters. Like West, Camden grew up in the mining country of Derbyshire, later moving to the United States. Camden’s life, however, is strewn with almost mythic deaths, to which he responds with lack of emotion: the sudden death of his father in a mining accident (recapture by the earth), the death of his mother while he is still a child, the near-suicide by drowning of his friend “Guppy” over romantic sorrow, and the death of his wife, Linda, from a mysterious cancer at first mistaken for pregnancy. Camden, educated in literature and philosophy, develops a gradually darkening attitude toward life, regularly redeemed by brilliant wordplay: “We took no breeches-buoy from desolation to the promised venusberg. Instead, we sat and got our buttocks damp.”

Brenda is an appropriate foil for Camden. Educated at Sarah Lawrence College, she is witty and intelligent but much less perceptive, less emotionally controlled. While Camden perceives the need for illusion and distraction and takes his dying wife to films, Brenda lives illusion and daydreams of romantic husbands and a life in Singapore or other exotic locales. Seeing herself as loveless, Brenda blames her situation on her puritanical mother, who in senescent rages, often beats her with a cane. It is out of mingled love for and hatred of her mother, as well as some desperate hope for freedom, that Brenda eventually kills her.

Merula functions primarily as a near-comic prop, the best Smeaton emblem of death-in-life. Asleep most of the time, she wakes to moments of brilliant observation or cantankerous “caneplay”; she tries to liven up the dance party by dressing in her bridal gown and setting off fireworks.

By contrast, the Huntley Fishers, both by their name and by their situation, suggest a return to a more natural and fertile humanity. They are young, in love, polite to the Smeatons, but essentially uncomprehending of the suffering of their neighbors or even of the concept of suffering itself. For them, sex is only pleasant play that leads to desired pregnancy.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Camden Smeaton

Camden Smeaton, a retired schoolmaster and writer of textbooks. Articulate and cynical, he is prone to poetic tirades, which are delivered to anyone who will listen, including trees, to which he offers a passionate monologue while flailing madly at their limbs. He is fifty-seven years old and views himself as a romantic figure who utilizes his superior knowledge to remain aloof from other people. He is obsessed with incidents from his past, including the deaths of his parents and spouse. He lives in rural Connecticut, in constant turmoil, with his sister, Merula, and her unmarried daughter, Brenda. Finally, he takes his own life with a Winchester rifle.

Brenda Smeaton

Brenda Smeaton, a forty-seven-year-old, unmarried woman. Spurned in her attempt to consummate a sexual experience at the age of twenty-seven in a New York hotel, she is bitter and resentful toward life in general, and particularly toward men. Looking haggard beyond her years, she engages Camden in conversation but feels inferior, self-conscious, and unloved. Driven to despair by her self-loathing, Brenda murders her dog and her mother, then attempts suicide by swimming into the middle of a lake.

Merula Smeaton


(The entire section is 829 words.)