The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Barnes’s ability to maintain this (on the surface rather unsatisfactory) inconclusiveness is dependent in large degree on the nature of his characters. Jean and Gregory, it could be said, are typically English. Neither complains. Neither seems to expect very much from life. Jean’s views on sex—since nobody has ever talked to her about it—are founded on a book of advice for young couples printed sometime before World War II, consisting of a mixture of raw biology, heavy sentiment, and pseudoscientific inhibition. Its advice for Jean is summed up in the phrase “be always escaping,” which she remembers for decades without feeling any compulsion to act on it or even understand it. Gregory is, if anything, even more passive than his mother. It is by no means incredible that such slow and peaceful natures should spend sixty to ninety years mulling over the meaning of minor “Incidents.”

This central pair is ringed, however, by more fiery characters. Rachel dominates her short stretch of the book with her thesis that all men are always wrong, and always wicked. Jean’s husband, Michael, she insists, is despicable for leaving Jean all of his money; he did it only to dominate her from beyond the grave. Yet he would have been despicable if he had not left her anything; that would have been an attempt to punish her. Actually, Jean says, Michael never made a will and died intestate, so that she got the money automatically. He was trying to have it...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Jean Serjeant

Jean Serjeant, the wife of Michael Curtis and mother of Gregory. Jean lives to be ninety-nine years old, and her preoccupation with the wonders of the world and life’s disappointments makes her a major voice in the discussion of the significance of human existence in this novel. She is reared as the daughter of a grocer in Bryden and comes to maturity during World War II. As a young woman, Jean is much impressed by the speculations on death, fear, and heroism uttered by the Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who is billeted with her family, but she settles for a marriage to Michael, a police constable. Her life sours as Michael’s traditional notions of domestic life and sexuality become increasingly onerous. After almost two decades of married life, Jean leaves her husband when she is thirty-nine years old and seven months pregnant with her first child. She subsequently takes on a number of temporary jobs in pubs and cheap restaurants in an effort to support herself and her son, Gregory. In late middle age, Jean experiences a brief lesbian relationship with Rachel, one of her son’s girlfriends, and she becomes preoccupied with foreign travel, particularly with her own list of the seven wonders of the world. In her old age, she turns her attention to the wonders of her life and to the pattern presented by her experiences. At the end of the novel, she joins Gregory in a final airplane ride, which allows them both to confront the brilliant image of the sun.

Sergeant-Pilot Thomas Prosser

Sergeant-Pilot Thomas Prosser, a short, slim man with brilliantined black hair and a small mustache. Originally from somewhere near Blackburn in Lancashire, Prosser is a Hurricane IIB fighter pilot in the RAF during World War II. He is grounded temporarily when he is billeted with the Serjeants. Nicknamed “Sun-UP” by his fellow...

(The entire section is 768 words.)