Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230
There are only two main characters in the novel: Harding and Hester. Lewis’ emotions are concentrated and intensified in Harding. Like Lewis, Harding is extremely idealistic but also “carries a sceptic on his back.” He has repudiated the intellectual attitudes of his time and feels ostracized by his professional colleagues and rivals. He has come to believe that history is not worth recording because it does not reveal man’s passion for sanity, decency, and morality but is, in fact, “the bloody catalogue of their backslidings.”
The relationship of Harding and Hester, clearly based on Lewis’ marriage, is solidly established in the opening section before being tested and destroyed in the Canadian crucible. Harding, who has an abnormal sexual appetite, also has an intellectual suspicion of panting and grunting between the bedsheets. He sees Hester as an abstract Woman and live pinup girl and never learns that she is a human being whose desires and needs are independent of his own. When he resists Hester’s sensuality, the basis of their marriage, and she can no longer reach him on the physical level, their passionate solidarity begins to crumble, and they start to watch each other with the sullen reserve of caged animals. Harding does not suspect the depth of his love for his wife or recognize the intensity of her suffering until it is too late to help her.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
René Harding, an English professor of history, formidably handsome, bearded, broad-shouldered, brown-eyed, and somewhat dark, revealing his French lineage on his mother’s side. In his late forties, he has established himself as a thinker of considerable, if eccentric, proportion. His books are well known, and he has been made a member of the French Legion of Honour. At the end of the 1930’s, disgusted with the way in which politicians have allowed the world to slip inevitably toward war and believing that historians are partly responsible because of their praise of political leaders, he resigns his professorship and leaves for Canada with no prospects of employment. He is very intelligent, irascible, and somewhat intolerant of contrary opinion.
Hester Harding, René’s wife, called Essie by him. She is a very pretty younger woman, with gray-blue eyes and ash-gold hair. She is not an intellectual and has little interest in her husband’s work, but their sexual life is happy and seems to keep them together. She accompanies her husband to Canada, but she is not happy about it and ultimately finds it much more difficult to adjust to what she considers the stupidities and intellectual vapidities of that country than does René, with severe consequences for their marriage. She is a kind, sweet-natured woman who is much taken for granted by her husband.
Percy Lamport, René’s brother-in-law, an insurance executive in his early fifties. Financially successful, he is inclined to left-wing enthusiasms in politics and to following fashionable artistic trends. Despite his liberal leanings, he is still a man of commerce, as his rimless glasses seem to reveal to René, who despises him and his split public personality. Percy nevertheless supports René when René resigns and gives him a large check to help him on his way.
Robert “Rotter” Parkinson
Robert “Rotter” Parkinson, a free-lance scholar of history who makes his living as a reviewer. He is square-headed and square-bodied, and he constantly smokes a pipe. He is René’s best friend from college days and something of a disciple of René’s ideas of history. His nickname, “Rotter,” picked up while attending a university, is misleading because he is a thoroughly respectable and thoroughly loyal supporter of René. He is intellectually quite as solid as René, though not of comparable intelligence. They have great affection for each other, and René’s departure is difficult for both of them.
Mrs. McAffie, called Affie by the Hardings, the overrouged, skinny manageress of the Blundell Hotel in Momaco (probably Toronto, Canada), where the Hardings, very hard up, live for some time after their arrival in Canada. She is in late middle age and is the widow of an Ottawa attorney. She has fallen on difficult times but is determined to retain her fading gentility. She is cheerful, if nosy, and her former respectability does not restrain her from happily providing rooms for itinerant prostitutes, busy at their trade.
Herbert Starr, a social confidence man in his forties who affects smartness in a soiled silk scarf and a close-fitting overcoat; he pursues wealthy old women. He writes advertising copy and sometimes passes himself off as “Lord Herbert.” He promises to introduce René to the right people, but he never does.
Cedric Furber, a tall, bearded, and elegant man with large, dull brown eyes, in his forties. He is a wealthy book collector particularly interested in books of questionable sexual interest, and he probably is a homosexual. He supplies René with a modest job as his part-time librarian. He is often kind to the Hardings when they are badly in need of money, but he never tries to get René anything very substantial, and he seems to get pleasure out of treating him as a servant.
Professor Ian McKenzie
Professor Ian McKenzie, a Scottish philosophy professor who comes to the University of Momaco sometime after the Hardings’ arrival in Canada. He is easygoing, modest, and open-minded, and he takes the place of Parkinson as René’s intellectual confidant. He makes a serious effort to get René back into university work, and he succeeds in getting him work at the school, which relieves the years of hardship but will have consequences that no one can imagine.