Last Updated on July 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
The first major character readers encounter in the story is Jim Laird, a lawyer in the small town of Sand City, Kansas. He is set apart from all the other men who come to collect the body of the deceased, Harvey Merrick, from the train. Jim is the only one who counted himself as Harvey's friend; the two met in college on the East Coast before Jim decided to return to Sand City, a choice he now regrets. He is a "burly" fellow with a messy red beard, and he is the only person to defend the dead Harvey against the criticism and judgment of the others who come to watch over his body. He seems to be the only local man who understands that Harvey was a good man, a special man, while the others criticize him for his education and choice to be an artist. Jim tells Steavens, Harvey's pupil,
You go on [to be with the other watchers]—it'll be a good experience for you, doubtless; as for me, I'm not equal to that crowd to-night; I've had twenty years of them.
He knows that Steavens will understand Harvey better by learning where Harvey came from, who raised him, and how they treated him. It is telling that the minister is there with his Bible, but he makes no effort to defend Harvey, while Jim Laird (whose name translates to something similar to "lord" in Scots) is the one to point out that it looks like "'something [is] the matter with [this] progressive town.'" It is as though he knows the truth, the Lord's truth, while even the minister stands mute. As the men are aware, Jim speaks with "withering sarcasm," pointing out the flaws in this town full of corrupt people—not "progressive" at all, as this bit is ironic—in order to show them that it is Harvey who is good and they who are bad.
Steavens is Harvey's young pupil and friend, the man who accompanies the body to Kansas so that it can be buried. It is through his memories and perceptions that we learn more about Harvey, just as we learn about the sordid town and its corrupt, materialistic inhabitants from Jim. Steavens is horrified by Harvey's family, and because he and Jim are the kindest, most intelligent, and most reasonable characters in the story, readers will tend to agree with and relate to them rather than Harvey's awful relations. Even their gaudy home strikes Steavens "painfully."
We briefly meet Harvey's "tall, corpulent" mother, Annie Merrick, who engages in vulgar histrionics over his coffin, "wrench[ing]" her door open and rushing out "bareheaded into the snow" to "fling" herself on his coffin. She seems characterized by a kind of animal "brutality" with "teeth that could tear." Ironically, there is nothing gentle about her, the mother of such a gentle man. We also meet Harvey's sister, "also tall, but flat and angular," and Steavens turns away with "unutterable repulsion" at the sight of these individuals, so unlike Harvey. Harvey's own father, Mr. Merrick, seems more embarrassed by his wife's behavior than he seems affected by the loss of his son.
Harvey Merrick himself was a sculptor. He was someone who prized education and saw the beauty in a sunset or a butterfly rather than the money that could be made by swindling or cheating another man. He had only one friend from home, Jim, and Jim is the only one who understood him; by all the rest, he was misunderstood (at best) or judged and insulted (at worst). Unlike his base family, he left "a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own" on whatever and whomever he touched. He got away from his family and former neighbors, but it took its toll on him, and he died fairly young—at forty—knowing their judgment would be harsher than God's.