The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

Miriam Berg and Beth Walker share the protagonist’s role in the novel. Piercy painstakingly characterizes both women, allotting each a section in which enough of each woman’s adolescence is chronicled to allow the reader to find cause and effect in her family life and class background relative to her adult personality. Piercy’s approach to characterizing Beth and Miriam is to derive them from their fictional but representative childhood environment (family life in the United States of the 1950’s and the 1960’s), which automatically creates conflict, since that environment was essentially hostile to women. The two women’s parents share the conventional assumptions about female children, victimizing their daughters by their neglect of the individual in the girl.

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Piercy endows both the young Beth and the young Miriam with considerable intellect and insight, which enable them to perceive the repression in their upbringing. Nevertheless, both women undergo a slow and painful process before they even begin to realize the extent of the psychic damage that has been done to them—and, by extension, to most women.

With Beth, Piercy illustrates active progress toward liberation. Beth’s development as a character is symbolic of many women’s enlightenment and of their slow but steady growth toward self-love and love of women (not necessarily in lesbian relationships only but also through appreciation of the qualities and strengths of women in general). Beth leans toward androgyny throughout much of the novel, allowing Piercy to emphasize the existence of that option, and Beth’s eventual connection with Wanda Rosario in a lesbian relationship evolves from the respect and affection earned by Wanda long before a sexual relationship develops between the two.

In contrast, Miriam’s progress toward self-love and liberation is impeded by her ongoing relationship with Phil and her even more destructive love for Jackson, Phil’s ascetic and bitter friend. Phil’s self-destructiveness combines with Jackson’s demands (“she felt as if he demanded all of her, then took only a piece and went away, that he shut the door leaving her outside still vainly offering herself”), forcing her to be lover, mother, playmate, and friend to them in order to fulfill their bottomless appetite for her. They sap her of any energy that she might otherwise have turned outward toward her career or inward for herself. When Miriam does free herself of Phil and Jackson, her career and her relationships with women flower. She returns to health and energy only to direct it and drain it once more in the service of love for a man, her husband, Neil Stone. Miriam, formerly full of intense energy and sensual force, stalls, drained by the quest for the love that she was taught to believe only a man could give her.

The characterization in Small Changes follows another important principle, the ripple effect. All the characters in the novel represent a network, or web, in which even the smallest tremor is felt and reacted to by its many constituents. (Piercy chose to title her 1982 collection of poetry Circles on the Water: Selected Poems.) All the characters in Small Changes are affected by the changes experienced by Miriam and Beth. Even the most recalcitrant male, Jackson, ends up pondering the advantages of allowing a self-realized woman into his life. This approach to character and conflict is not unusual, but when a network of individuals is caught up in profound social change, such as the women’s movement, the predictable personal influence of one character upon another becomes a means of political activism. It is this combination of the personal and political that distinguishes Piercy’s fiction.

Characters Discussed

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Beth Phail Walker

Beth Phail Walker, a high-school graduate who works as a secretary in Boston. Slight, quiet, and introverted, she is an omnivorous reader and a perceptive observer of her surroundings. Made to feel inferior by the traditional expectations of her family and husband and trapped in an early marriage with no possibility of attending college, she runs away, finds a job and room of her own, and audits classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Encounters with Miriam Berg and communal life lead to a series of “small changes.” She becomes a vegetarian, forms a women’s commune, gets a divorce, and works intensely in women’s theater. In her liaison with its leader, Wanda Rosario, she acquires political awareness, speaks out, and discovers her sexuality and the joys of physical labor. Forming a lesbian family with Wanda brings her fulfillment.

Miriam Berg

Miriam Berg, a graduate student and researcher in computer science. She is an intelligent young Jewish woman with glossy black hair; she is full-bodied, vivacious, and outgoing. She pours her considerable energies equally into her academic studies and her stormy love relationship with Phil. Her search is for the love and support missing during her Flatbush years as a fat teenager with braces and thick glasses. The experiences of college in Wisconsin, the ordeal of her mother’s slow death, and her sexual awakening with Phil and Jackson give her self-confidence and new goals. Frustrated, however, by the transitory nature of communal life and the sexism that impedes her academic life and professional work at Logical Systems Development, she finds temporary security in marriage to Neil Stone and motherhood. That role fails to satisfy her energy. Her desire to reenter the job market and maintain her ties with Phil, Beth, and friends in local communes creates tension and misunderstanding with her husband.

Phil

Phil, a Vietnam veteran, woman chaser, and would-be poet. He is extremely handsome, with blue-green eyes and an ingratiating manner especially attractive to women. He works at a series of menial jobs to support his constant use of drugs. Rejecting the alcoholic father and battered mother who scarred his Boston childhood, he finds primary support in the strong friendship forged with Jackson during their war service. He is Miriam’s first lover and constant friend. Only after a jail term does he find a vocation, as a carpenter, as well as finding a partner, Dorine.

Jackson

Jackson, an older, long-haired, fringe academic, Phil’s roommate and mentor. A lined, sad face characterizes the complex, sardonic loner who never mentions his cultured background and later misfortunes. Shielding himself with constant banter, he manipulates human beings as if they were pawns in his favorite game, chess. Only Miriam and Beth penetrate his reserve briefly. He is finally graduated and teaches political science at the University of Massachusetts.

Neil Stone

Neil Stone, a director of Logical Systems Development, a small research corporation in Cambridge. He is a precise, methodical, and attractive man with traditional family values. As Miriam’s husband, he encourages her role of model homemaker and pressures her to have children, but he resents her attempts at financial and social independence. At the novel’s end, he seeks companionship with a lonely female colleague and considers divorce.

Wanda Rosario

Wanda Rosario, a chunky, gray-haired, Italian-Polish woman in her late thirties who is married to Joe, a radical political organizer who deserts her and their two young sons. She is a hardworking, wise, and earthy woman who finds a new vocation as director of a traveling women’s theater troupe and is joined by Beth, who becomes her lover. A political activist before her marriage, she is jailed for refusing to testify against former comrades. After her release, she steals her children from custody and begins a new life, disguised and fugitive, with Beth in Ohio.

Dorine

Dorine, a frizzy-haired, timid girl who performs the role of maid, doormat, and bedmate for Phil and Jackson’s circle of friends. Finally tiring of their ridicule and insensitivity, she moves to a women’s commune. Through the support and love of her friends, she acquires respect for herself, attends graduate school, becomes a strong leader in the women’s movement, and works out an equal relationship with Phil.

Jim Walker

Jim Walker, Beth’s hard-drinking and sports-loving young husband, who expects his wife to cater to his demands and uses physical force to keep her in line.

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