The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The focus of Sarah Phillips is on the title character, a sensitive first-person narrator who reports the events that take place around her and her own reactions to those events. Sarah is a born observer. The chapters about her childhood make it clear that at an early age she was already in the habit of noticing the details of her surroundings: the colors, sounds, and scents in a room, the words of others and the expressions on their faces, and the moment-by-moment progress of her own feelings.

Even though the other characters are seen through Sarah’s eyes, she does not merely describe them; instead, she brings them to life with the skill of a dramatist. She shows her father, the Reverend James Forrest Phillips, at a service, speaking in powerful phrases, varying his vocal patterns like a musician, glowing with the pleasure he feels when he is preaching. Similarly, she shows her mother, Grace Renfrew Phillips, in action, cooking, talking on the telephone, telling dramatic stories of her past adventures, or going for walks in the shadowy summer night. Sarah notices the significance of details, seeing, for example, that Grace’s passionate interests in chicken parts, earthquakes, murders, and suicides are evidence of her delight in the bizarre.

Although far less space is devoted to Sarah’s brother, Matthew Phillips, he is important as a foil to Sarah, who adores him but knows from experience that he generally gets her into trouble. Matthew first appears at the baptismal service, playing the role of the good child in contrast to his recalcitrant sister. As Sarah comments, Matthew delights in setting off explosions and then running away, leaving her behind to cope with the consequences. In the hilarious chapter “Matthew and Martha,” Matthew delights Sarah and shocks his parents by bringing a white Jewish girlfriend home to dinner. After an uncomfortable meal, Matthew escapes as usual, leaving Sarah to bear the brunt of her mother’s fury. In this episode, as throughout the book, an incident is used to support Sarah’s analysis of another character as well as to reveal the importance of that character to her own developing understanding.

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sarah Phillips, the heroine and narrator of the book, guides the reader on a tour of the various stages of her life. The other characters in the book function as auxiliary figures who fill in the outlines of Sarah’s progress through the first two decades of her life.

Intelligent, sensitive, and observant, Sarah nevertheless doubts herself and her own capacity to come to terms with her experience. Sarah is grateful to her parents for their loving attention, but she never feels herself a part of their world. Attracted by the romantic appeal of the gypsies and the Thunderbirds, she is too straitlaced to stray far outside the middle-class contours established by her parents. At first oblivious to her racial identity, Sarah determines to come to grips with the contradictions of being a middle-class, educated African American.

The Reverend Phillips, Sarah’s father, is a figure of great wisdom and power. Yet he uses his authority not to discipline Sarah and her brother but rather to make them feel protected and loved. Sarah feels somewhat distant from her father, whom she reveres but does not fully know. Reverend Phillips, however, clearly is the dominant figure in his daughter’s life.

Sarah’s mother, Grace Renfrew Phillips, is more elusive. Beneath her placid, bourgeois exterior lurks a far more exciting and illicit world of adventure and intrigue. Sarah’s mother seems more traditional and self-effacing than her intelligent,...

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips, the protagonist and narrator, a pretty twenty-one-year-old black woman, who grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb. She went to a private school and to Harvard University, and now, after her graduation, has gone to live in Paris. When she realizes that she cannot break off with her family or her heritage, Sarah thinks back over the past in an attempt to find her own identity before her inevitable return home.

The Reverend James Forrest Phillips

The Reverend James Forrest Phillips, her late father, who until his recent death was minister of the New African Baptist Church in Philadelphia. An outgoing, likable person and a natural leader, he is highly respected both as a superb preacher and as an activist in the Civil Rights movement.

Grace Renfrew Phillips

Grace Renfrew Phillips, Sarah’s mother, a teacher in a Quaker school. A polished, witty, and cultivated woman who plays the role of minister’s wife flawlessly, she nevertheless has a fascination with the grotesque and the outlandish, which delights her daughter.

Matthew Phillips

Matthew Phillips, Sarah’s older brother, a law student. Matthew plays an important part in Sarah’s recollections, first as a smug, superior thirteen-year-old boy who unlike his sister has agreed to be baptized, then later as a rebel who breaks his ties with the church and scandalizes his family by falling in love with a white Jewish girl.