The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Wyatt, of all the pretenders, changes to become a truth seeker. Most of the other characters loiter at the right bars, attend fashionable parties, and go sightseeing at the correct places. They gossip, drink, develop their images, and, whenever they can, because they have nothing better to do, antagonize and distract the moral characters. Hannah tells Anselm to “shut up,” “go home,” and “take a nap” when he and Stanley discuss religion. Don Bildow asks Stanley for methyltestosterone (“I’m with this girl, see”) and later “the Italian word for contraceptive” when Stanley frantically pursues Esme.

Three other characters besides Wyatt seek the truth in the novel: Esme, the poet; Stanley, the composer; and Valentine, the art critic. They warrant the reader’s attention because they discover truth.

Gaddis has created a fascinating character in the beautiful Esme. She has the self-discipline to make herself look beyond details to find the eternal principles. Her use of the third-person singular when talking about herself illustrates this asceticism. The use of the third person allows her to think of herself as she would another person, with the distance necessary to ignore petty needs and selfish desires. These needs only get in the way of her broad study, for they are details such as the ones Wyatt has painted for so long.

Using the third person, Esme says beautiful things. When Stanley gets her pregnant, she asks...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Wyatt Gwyon

Wyatt Gwyon, an artist who forges imitations of the paintings of old masters. An enormously talented painter in his early thirties, with a genius for reproducing the works of others, he is in despair over the lack of authenticity in art as in life. Wyatt produces imitations that fool all but the most discerning art critics. After the death of his mother when Wyatt was only four, he was reared by his father, a minister interested in anthropology and mythology, and his father’s aunt, a Calvinist for whom creativity was evil. Drawn toward both religion and art, Wyatt goes first to seminary for a year, then to Germany and Paris to study art. Repulsed by the decadence and avarice of the art world, he rejects his own original paintings, moves to New York City, and turns his talents first to restoring paintings and then to forgery. Both his marriage and an affair with a model fail for a lack of genuine feeling. Tormented by the lack of any apparent relationship among art, truth, and reality, Wyatt determines to expose the forgery ring and moves to Spain, where his mother is buried. He changes his name to Stephen. Again he becomes involved with women and in forgery, this time in faking a mummy. Wyatt/Stephen flees to a monastery, where he restores paintings to the original canvas. Eventually having achieved some reconciliation with himself, his art, and his life, he leaves the monastery, apparently in search of his daughter by one of the Spanish women.

The Reverend Gwyon

The Reverend Gwyon, Wyatt’s father and the town minister. His interest in anthropology and mythology and subsequent dissatisfaction with Christianity lead him to worship the sun. He instills in Wyatt a love of learning and a passion for a spiritual context for the details of life. When his wife dies aboard ship in transit from New England, he buries her in Spain and seeks solace in a Franciscan monastery in Spain before returning to his young son. The introduction to Catholicism impels his rejection of Calvinism and his increasing mysticism, culminating in his sun worship.

Aunt May

Aunt May, Wyatt’s Calvinist aunt, who helps to rear Wyatt until her death, when he is twelve years old. She has a major effect on Wyatt. She condemns creativity as blasphemy because when humans create, they imitate God. She makes Wyatt, as a child, feel guilty about his drawing, leaving him deeply ambivalent about art.


Esther, Wyatt’s wife and the author of books about art. Intelligent, knowledgeable about art and literature, and analytical, but emotionally dependent, she is frustrated by Wyatt’s absorption in himself and his work. She begins an affair with Otto that precipitates Wyatt’s leaving her. About a year later, Otto abandons her, and she takes up Ellery, an adman. Each man distances her further from genuine art.


Esme, a poet and an art model. Her ethereal beauty makes her a good model for...

(The entire section is 1230 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While he does not appear in at least one-third of the scenes, Wyatt Gwyon is the book's main character; his struggles are the focus of The...

(The entire section is 234 words.)