The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel begins with a description of Judge Austin Beggs as a living fortress who provides his family with security. Equally strong is his “detached tenderness,” his bulwark against the disappointments of life, the most important of which is the loss of an only son in infancy. His anger and outraged sense of decency take over from time to time when additional disappointments invade his concentration on the “origins of the Napoleonic code” and on his attempts to provide financially for his family of three socially frivolous daughters. His handling of situations is direct, as when he “brusquely grabbed the receiver” of the telephone “with the cruel concision of a taxidermist’s hands at work” to ask a beau never to attempt to see Dixie, his eldest daughter, again.

“Miss Millie” Beggs, Alabama’s mother, on the other hand, possesses a “wide and lawless generosity,” “nourished from many years of living faced with the irrefutable logic of the Judge’s fine mind.” Because her sense of reality was never very strong, she could not “reconcile that cruelty of the man with what she knew was a just and noble character. She was never again able to form a judgment of people, shifting her actualities to conform to their inconsistencies till by a fixation of loyalty she achieved in her life a saintlike harmony.” Her strategy in life consists of avoiding or preventing difficult situations, so that when Alabama tells her that she does not want to go to school any longer and her mother can react only with a faintly hostile surprise, Alabama merely switches the subject to save her mother the difficulty of listening to an explanation that she cannot comprehend. Millie’s major battles are fought over dresses remade for one daughter from an older sister’s clothes.

Alabama’s older sisters, Joan and Dixie, the belles of Montgomery society and the envy of their younger sister during her childhood, eventually settle into conventional patterns of life in New York and Connecticut. Alabama finds the social whirl exciting at first and then suffocating; her pattern for life is established early, when her first escape arrives one day in the person of a handsome military officer from the north, David Knight. He is, indeed, the knight come to release his princess, as he refers to her in his letters. He even expresses a wish to keep her in his ivory tower for his “private delectation.” What Alabama realizes much later is that despite all the initial excitement of the escape, the disillusioning sense of entrapment eventually sets in. She leaves her father’s fortress for the ivory tower of her husband’s...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Alabama Beggs Knight

Alabama Beggs Knight, the daughter of Millie and Judge Beggs, wife of David Knight, and mother of Bonnie. She stands in for the author and is the author’s fictional counterpart to Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934). The wildest of three sisters, she is well bred. The youngest of the three, and fourteen years old at the start of the novel, she envies the social life of her older sisters. After she marries David, a handsome military officer and painter from the North, they live a glamorous, but increasingly unsatisfying, life during the Roaring Twenties. They escape to Connecticut, New York, Paris, the Riviera, and Italy, then finally back to Alabama for the final illness and funeral of her father. Each escape seems to begin with an attempt by Alabama to define herself, only to leave her with a sense of emptiness. Even the birth of her daughter, Bonnie, cannot fill that void. She eventually takes up ballet and a lover, only to find those experiences palling on her. The novel ends with her return home for the funeral of her father. She thinks to herself that she will always return “to seek some perspective on ourselves, some link between ourselves and all the values more permanent than us . . . in our father’s setting.” In her search for some direction in her own life, however, Alabama reflects about her father: “He must have forgot to leave the message.”

David Knight

David Knight, Alabama’s husband, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald. His very name suggests the romantic escape he represents to Alabama in her flight from her mother’s suffocating weakness and her father’s entrapping sternness. Although...

(The entire section is 706 words.)