Rameau's Niece

by Cathleen Schine

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Characters Discussed

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Margaret Nathan

Margaret Nathan, the novel’s protagonist. A twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. in eighteenth century intellectual history, Margaret is known internationally for her best-selling biography, The Anatomy of Madame de Montigny. Despite a postdoctoral sinecure and numerous pirzes testifying to her success, Margaret is self-effacing and self-critical. She measures herself against the yardstick of her witty and effervescent husband, Edward, and focuses on her own deficient memory and social awkwardness. Once Margaret begins research for a new book, however, she embarks on an intellectual and sexual quest that fails but nevertheless leads to a better understanding of herself and of Edward.

Edward Ehrenwerth

Edward Ehrenwerth, Margaret’s husband, who teaches American literature at Columbia University. An English Jew from Oxford, Edward is articulate and egotistical, but never condescending. He interlaces daily conversation with poetic quotations and literary allusions, and he thrives on bantering with colleagues and lecturing to adoring students. Edward loves Margaret and takes pride in her accomplishments. Even during her personal crisis, Edward is supportive. When Margaret first begins to find fault with their relationship and to project her own desire to commit adultery onto Edward, he meets her bad humor with good-natured tolerance. Later, when Margaret disappears and shows up naked in her editor’s bedroom, Edward is more concerned than angry.


Lily, Margaret’s friend from college, a feminist art critic. She views the world entirely in feminist paradigms and sees masculinist oppression even in restaurant menus. She is extremely attractive and dresses provocatively, believing that if her tight leather skirt and red lace bodice cause men to leer, it is a reflection on them, not her. Margaret is surprised to find herself leering at Lily and begins to wonder if either or both of them are lesbian. Margaret finally summons the nerve to make a sexual advance toward Lily but is interrupted when Edward, dressed only in a robe, appears in the doorway of Lily’s bathroom.

Martin Court

Martin Court, a Belgian who sits next to Margaret on her return flight from a conference in Prague. Without knowing even his name or nationality, Margaret becomes strangely attracted to this handsome, middle-aged man and spends the flight fantasizing about him. A few days later, she is shocked to find Martin on her doorstep. Coincidentally, Margaret had met Martin’s parents in Prague and had given them her name as a contact for their son who was soon to be touring the United States. Margaret accompanies Martin on his sight-seeing tour in New York and later attempts to seduce him. Martin declines her advances because she is married, drunk, and nearly the same age as his daughter.

Samuel Lipi

Samuel Lipi (originally Lipinsky), Margaret’s dentist and the one person in the novel, other than Edward, who does not resist her sexual advances. Unable to converse on any topic but teeth, Dr. Lipi is no intellectual match for Margaret; but his physical resemblance to Michelangelo’s David is enough to satisfy her temporarily.


Richard, Margaret’s editor. Despite his homosexuality and attempts to keep her at a professional distance, Margaret temporarily falls in love with Richard and takes refuge in his flat when she separates from Edward.

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Critical Essays