The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Even though the reader’s perspective on this “history” is cosmic and is shared by the main characters in their more ethereal forms, Lessing creates interest in her characters in their human forms. By accepting incarnation, one gives up cosmic knowledge. Even the Canopeans Johor and Taufiq lose memory of their true identities. Taufiq is spoken of as captured by the enemy when he makes the wrong choices in his human life as Brent-Oxford and begins to live for self rather than for the Purpose. This inner conflict is even more difficult for the human souls Johor selects to join his family for the last days. This forgetting means that each character must strive against the discord of Shammat to realize his or her true potential and to act consistently with it. The struggle leads often to moving events such as when Taufiq is reclaimed by Johor out of a painful and confused web of self-assertion.

Characterization is unconventional in that the perspective on the main characters is cosmic. Because the characters appear in the book mainly as observers and because of the cosmic perspective of the reader, few characters are deeply engaging. The selections from Rachel Sherban’s journal cause the reader to care for several characters much as she does, but behind this caring is a constant awareness of the Purpose, which leads the reader to uncharacteristic judgments. For example, while Rachel disapproves of George’s wife, Suzanna, the reader gradually comes to...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Johor, incarnated as George Sherban, a representative of the galactic empire Canopus to the planet Earth, which is named Shikasta in the novel. Shikasta is Johor’s worst assignment, for he must watch its decline from the golden age when it was named Rohanda to its low point in the twentieth century. Rohanda/Shikasta/Earth once had two races: the Giants, who live twelve to fifteen thousand years and are sixteen to eighteen feet tall, and the Natives, who live five hundred years and are half the height of the Giants, with the former acting as benevolent guides and teachers to the latter. Johor witnesses and reports on the degeneration of both races as a mystical flow of goodwill called “the Lock” between Canopus and Shikasta breaks down and chaos replaces an idyllic pastoral life. He travels about in various incarnations, including that of a “shaggy” Native, attempting to salvage what he can and opposing the influence of Shammat, a criminal planet allied with the evil empire Puttioria. Johor ultimately resurfaces as George Sherban, a young man tutored by a remarkable series of Canopean influences as he lives with his family in Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco, and Tunisia. George, though basically Scotch-Irish, has an Indian grandfather; he is tall, with ivory skin, black hair, and black eyes, easily passing for an Indian or an Arab. He becomes an international youth leader, helping to organize both Children’s Camps, for refugees and orphans, and Youth Armies, which attempt to maintain civilization under the Chinese socialist overlordship now controlling Europe. George’s greatest achievement is in his role as prosecutor at the Mock Trial of the white race sponsored by the Combined Youth Armies of the World. George’s artful defusing of...

(The entire section is 722 words.)