The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As one might suspect about a novel having so antic a plot, Bradbury’s characters appear as comic caricatures, at least at first, but slowly they begin to take on, if not the substantive weight of the figures in realistic fiction, then a nevertheless surprising depth, a certain elusiveness that gives the novel much of its emotional power. Petworth, for example, possesses so minimal a self that Bradbury does not bother to divulge his surname for some five thousand words and his Christian name not for another fifty thousand. Lecturing on “the uvular R” and the difference between “I don’t have” and “I haven’t got,” Petworth has so tenuous a hold both on reality and on himself as to be an easy target for the Slakans, who linguistically transform Petworth into Petwurt, Petwit, Pervert, and the like. Yet even Petworth has his humanities, as Herman Melville once said of a far more dynamic character, Captain Ahab. Like the hero of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959), Petworth has his inarticulate desires, even if his “I want I want” is far less clamorous and insistent than Henderson’s cri de ciur. He is so unsure of how to proceed, or whether he should proceed at all, that he falls prey not only to his own indecisiveness and internal contradictions but also to his several guides, Bradbury’s versions of Bellow’s “reality instructors.”

What complicates Petworth’s situation, and the reader’s as well, is his difficulty in deciding which of his guides to trust and how far this trust should go, for with the possible exception of the buffoonish Steadiman, all the major characters are rendered in deliberately ambiguous terms, their own desires and allegiances as divided as Petworth’s. For all of her Party-minion gruffness and social realist style, Marisja, for example, eventually speaks in a quite different voice, one having more to do with desire than necessity. For all of her magic realism and dissident politics, Katya Princip can sound, or at least seem, dismayingly down to earth when it comes to the facts of her own life in Slaka and the compromises which that life requires of her.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Angus Petworth

Angus Petworth, a British professor of linguistics on a cultural visit to Slaka (the capital of an imaginary Eastern European country), where he is to give a series of lectures on the English language. Middle-aged, somewhat lonely, and vaguely dissatisfied with his staid life, Petworth is a hesitant adventurer in the overwhelmingly foreign world of Slaka. Pensive and observant, he interprets much of what befalls him in terms of the theories of communication, which are his field. Partly because of his difficulty with the constantly changing language of Slaka, Petworth is taciturn and passive under the direction of his several guides.

Marisja Lubijova

Marisja Lubijova, Petworth’s official guide. Tense and white-faced in a mohair hat, Marisja studies at the university in Slaka. Humorous, sarcastic, efficient, and knowledgeable, she is also extremely protective and (it appears) somewhat infatuated with Petworth. She is frequently outspoken and opinionated and is suspicious of the other Slakans who vie for Petworth’s attention.

Katya Princip

Katya Princip, a free-spirited, confident, and uninhibited magical-realist novelist with whom Petworth has a brief affair. Adventurous and emotional, beautiful Katya lives life to the fullest. Beneath her charming and exuberant exterior, there is a certain hard-edged and practical self-interest. She is aware of the risks that she takes in getting involved with Petworth, and there is a suggestion that she has used her several husbands and lovers for her own advancement. Impulsive and strong-willed, she effectively whisks away a...

(The entire section is 679 words.)