The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

James Chandler, who is dead at the beginning of the book, is a philosopher mainly concerned with metaphysics and aesthetics. Since the prologue opens with four women visiting his grave (his mother, his widow, his oldest daughter, and Viola Staley), one feels he was justified in asking questions about ultimate reality—indeed, from chapter 1, he has known he was dying. He is a man who loves, but he feels continually that he does not give people their due, especially those closest to him. His thoughts about various issues in his life’s work intersperse the book, as do new thoughts raised by his immediate situation and by his visit to his old town, his former piano teacher, his father’s workshop, and John Horne. Like John Gardner in appearance, Chandler also resembles him in his mystical tendencies and his interest in issues that logical positivists would say are nonsense.

Maria Chandler is an intelligent woman uninterested in her husband’s work. She worries what meals will be nutritious for him in his last days and wonders where she will rear their daughters after his death. She is the sort who makes the living of a decent life possible for the James Chandlers of the world.

Karen, Susan, and Anne Chandler are too young to do much more than be girls, though Karen already is showing signs of becoming serious-minded. She asks Viola if there is a God, and she notices much, including how people play various games, in some of which she leads...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

James Chandler

James Chandler, a forty-one-year-old philosophy professor at Stanford University. Influenced by R. G. Collingwood, especially his idea that the process that destroys also creates, Chandler is at odds with the philosophical fashions of his time—positivism and existentialism. This quixotic as well as meditative and usually cheerful academic thus begins writing an “apology for contemporary metaphysics,” then learns that he is suffering from aleukemic leukemia and has only a few months to live. Rather than stay in the hospital in order to prolong his life slightly, he decides to return, with his wife and three daughters, to the hometown he has visited only rarely during the past twenty years, Batavia, in western New York. Batavia, however, has declined or at least changed, as, of course, has Chandler. His disease weakens his body, troubles his sleep (in his dreams, he is unable to protect his children from a strange old woman), and affects his thinking and writing. Desperately, he tries in the little time he has left to work out on paper his insight into Immanuel Kant’s mistake, his failure to see the disinterest in moral affirmation. Although he believes that one’s goal should be to make life into art, the dying (and still quixotic) Chandler ends up looking like “an image out of some grim, high-class Western.”

Marie Chandler

Marie Chandler, James Chandler’s wife, formerly a high school English teacher and more recently a full-time mother. Her self-control and especially her practical-mindedness contrast with her husband’s character, yet she too is an idealist, albeit “mute.”




Susan, and


Annie, Marie and...

(The entire section is 735 words.)