The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Oates explores the intense psychological workings of her characters, highlighting their torments and illuminating the certainties that shape their lives. Not one of her characters is flat, but some also serve as types to convey the themes of the story. Many of the characters repeat biblical verses to themselves in their attempts to understand the mysterious will of God.

Nathan is the most fully rounded character in the novel. Although his life is the focus of the novel, Oates does not make him a sympathetic character, a fact that at times makes the novel a difficult struggle. Because he begins his preaching career as a young boy, Nathan never experiences the normal phases of human life nor learns common social interactions. The joy he finds with other humans is limited to his sense of his audience as souls to be saved; he sees their bodies as merely fleshy containers to be ignored. As his ministry and influence grow, Nathan becomes more alienated from humanity, until he fails to see other people as having any objective reality.

Opal Vickery, Nathan’s grandmother, provides the religious fervor that informs his life. Oates portrays Opal as an average, uneducated Christian, blindly accepting religious authority. Opal believes wholeheartedly that her grandson has been touched by God and facilitates his career as a preacher, keeping faith with him until the end.

Thaddeus Vickery, Nathan’s grandfather, is appalled at the boy’s...

(The entire section is 582 words.)