The Second Coming has a large cast of distinctive characters who are cleverly delineated, though not in great depth. This is partly because they are seen through the ironic consciousness of Will Barrett. He is unusually perceptive about fakery or seeming inconsistencies in human behavior, including his own. It bothers him, for example, that his daughter Leslie, so insistent about the joy of her personal relationship to Jesus, is continually frowning. He asks the chaplain Jack Curl point-blank if he believes that God exists and perceives in Jack’s confusion and double-talk the paucity of his religious knowledge. He intuits the meaning of Allie’s poetic and nonidiomatic speech, recognizing that she tries to express the truth of experience. Most of his acquaintances speak in jargon and trite phrases which have no precise meaning.
Yet Will’s experience of other people may be colored by the peculiar sickness of his soul. Certain characters seem to represent facets of Will’s own personality, his shadow selves, so to speak, whom he must exorcise in order to be sane. The most conspicuous of these, without doubt, is his father, whose preference for death has infected his very soul. There are others, however, such as his friend Lewis Peckham, who seems to represent the intellectual, or perhaps pseudointellectual, as ruined “natural man.” Lewis turns for meaning to classical music and great books, yet he seems curiously empty of any conviction. A more comic shadow self is Ewell McBee, a vulgar bully out of Will’s past who seems to represent his more bestial nature.
Will’s character remains something of a mystery to himself, to other people, and to the reader, an enigmatic combination of genial tolerance and inner coldness, at once curiously wise and hopelessly naïve, suspecting the worst, yet yearning for the best that human imagination can devise.