The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

For a historical novelist, the freedom a fiction writer has to create plausible and coherent characters is disciplined by the need for historical characters to conform to the historical record. Chase-Riboud follows Brodie’s biography in interpreting the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson as a story of mutual love that began in Paris in 1788 when she was fifteen and he forty-five and that lasted thirty-eight years, until Jefferson’s death.

Sally Hemings is characterized as an intelligent and beautiful woman whom slavery has taught “never to hope, never to anticipate, and never to resist.” Hemings accepts her role of slave “wife,” which gives her paradoxically combined feelings of passivity and power. Slavery only reinforces her culture’s training in submission as the proper role of women. Dependent on a loving, powerful man, she abandons herself to “that particular joy of not being responsible for oneself.” At the same time, she takes pride in her power—power to invoke Jefferson’s intensely passionate love, power to exert occasional influence over his political decisions, and power to exercise real if unacknowledged authority as mistress of Monticello. At times, the cruel realities of slavery force her into agonized reappraisal of her situation—when she reviews her mother’s life, when Jefferson refuses to acknowledge her sons as his, when the murder of slave friends by their masters goes unpunished, and when she attends Nat Turner’s trial. Although she continues to affirm that her love for Jefferson has been the meaning of her life, in repudiating Nathan Langdon she asserts her right to control and interpret that life for herself.


(The entire section is 691 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sally Hemings is the centerpiece of the novel in every way. It is she who commands the story, telling much of it. Victimized by slavery, Jefferson, love, and herself, Sally does not so much grow and mature as she becomes older; rather, she merely endures changes in her circumstances. Always, Sally is seen making choices: The novel opens with her deciding whether to talk to Nathan Langdon; in her youth, she must decide if she will remain in France and be free or return to Virginia and slavery; through the years, she repeatedly elects to stay with Jefferson and to love him; as Jefferson’s death approaches, she must decide to what extent she can and will help her children escape slavery; finally, after Jefferson’s death, she remains illegally in Virginia in order to live on a small farm near Monticello. The character is described by the author almost throughout; however, in three or four instances she does speak for herself in small subchapters given to her first-person point of view.

Thomas Jefferson is always depicted externally, as are most of the characters in the novel. Readers see him in action and hear him speak but seldom know what is occurring in his mind. The novelist, to her credit, does not attempt to debunk myths surrounding the historical Jefferson; his greatness is left intact, though readers will doubtless be disturbed by the omnipresent fact that Jefferson continued to own slaves and to live his life within the confines of slavery as an institution. His greatness and role in history are not undermined, but much of his hypocrisy is exposed. Chase-Riboud has assured this by prefacing the chapters with actual...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings, the protagonist, based on a female slave owned by Thomas Jefferson. She is characterized as Jefferson’s mistress and mother of seven children by him. Sally grows up at Monticello, the daughter of the slave Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law; she is thus the half sister of Martha Wayles Jefferson, who dies at the age of thirty-four. When she is fourteen years old, Sally is sent to France as servant and companion to her niece, Jefferson’s daughter Maria (Polly). For love of Thomas Jefferson, she resists her brother James’s urging to remain in France, where she is legally free, and returns, pregnant, to Monticello as Jefferson’s unacknowledged “wife.” Although Jefferson frees her sons, Sally herself is not freed until after his death, by his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph (Patsy). Once free, she is permitted to remain in Virginia only by a special dispensation of the state legislature.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, who is based on the historical author of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador to France, and third president of the United States. Jefferson, having promised his dying wife that he would not remarry, retains possession of her image in her half sister Sally, who is doubly bound to him by slavery and love. When published allegations about his relationship with Sally create a scandal, the Jefferson family denies the charges, but...

(The entire section is 589 words.)