The Subject Was Roses Characters
by Frank D. Gilroy

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

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John Cleary

John Cleary, a fifty-year-old coffee merchant. John is deeply disappointed with the course his life has taken. He had the opportunity, years ago, to relocate in Brazil, but his wife, Nettie, did not want to make the move. Instead, they settled in the Bronx, near Nettie’s mother. The man who took the position in Brazil became rich. Having failed to achieve the American Dream, John now turns his frustration toward others, particularly Nettie and Timmy, his son. John’s unhappiness also reveals itself in his rigidity (particularly about morality and religion) and reticence. He is unable to speak about those things that are deeply meaningful to him. He drinks to excess, though he does not approve of his son’s drunkenness. John’s long-standing estrangement from his wife has intensified during Timmy’s absence from home. Now, with Timmy’s return, he finds himself both envious of and frustrated by his son. Although he reaches tentative agreement with his son at the end of the play, his deeper problems are unresolved.

Nettie Cleary

Nettie Cleary, John’s wife, a bitter, estranged woman. At the age of forty-five, she contrasts her present life with a happier past. She recalls (or imagines) her childhood at home, a world of gentility, culture, and love. She had several suitors and chose John as the most energetic and ambitious of them. He alone, she believed, would be able to give her the life she sought. His failure to do so disappointed her, and her love diminished. To replace her expectations, she has created a life of service to her husband, her mother, her son, and her retarded cousin, but it is a life that has left her unfulfilled. The day that she walks out of the house and spends hours wandering around the city is, she says, “the only real freedom I’ve ever known.” Like her husband, Nettie is caught in a self-created worldview, unable to appreciate the different reality of others and unable to communicate with those others. Timmy’s return home is yet another failure of reality to meet her expectations.

Timmy Cleary

Timmy Cleary, their son, who left home at the age of eighteen to fight in World War II. Now twenty-one, he returns to his parents’ house, precipitating the family crisis for all three characters. Timmy is now better able to perceive his parents’ relationship with each other, as well as his relationship with each, though his insight is colored by his own quest for independence. Although he attempts to meet each parent’s separate expectations of him, he cannot alter the person he has become. When he tries to reconcile John and Nettie, for example by buying her roses, he fails. Like his father, Timmy drinks excessively, providing a convenient escape from the shattered home he is trying to reenter. His behavior merely makes the situation worse, and although he almost manages some moments of communication, first with Nettie and then with John, his decision to leave home at the end is the only resolution to the family conflict.

Characters

(Drama for Students)

John Cleary
John Cleary is Nettie’s husband and Timmy’s father. He is of Irish descent and is staunchly Catholic. His father was probably an Irish immigrant who came to the Bronx in the late nineteenth century and had to struggle to make a life for himself in America. John had a deprived childhood and recalls being so hungry he had to beg for food. The family’s furniture was thrown out on the street because the Clearys failed to pay their rent and they were always hiding from debt collectors. John had to quit school after fourth grade to support his father who had been crippled for life. He entered the coffee trade, and when he was seventeen his employer sent him to Brazil for three months. John thinks of this as the time he grew up, just as Timmy grew up through his years in the army.

According to Nettie, as a young man, John was full of energy, ambitious, charming, and sociable. He wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was forty. But the stock market crash of 1929 ended that ambition. John’s relative failure left him embittered and Nettie disappointed. He has been able to give his family a middle-class lifestyle—he owns a car and a vacation house by a lake in New Jersey—but he is concerned about his financial affairs. The coffee business is in decline and he is considering renting out his lake house.

John’s marriage to Nettie deteriorated long ago. He had affairs with other women and often stayed out late drinking. He and Nettie now maintain an antagonistic relationship. Although they do still have feelings for each other, those feelings are overlaid by years of bickering and resentments on both sides. Nettie, for example, has never forgotten that John bought the lake house without consulting her.

John has been unable to forge a close relationship with his son whom he regarded as a sickly boy who would not last in the army. During the play he tries to make amends, but it is difficult. He is irascible, defensive, stubborn, and set in his ways and beliefs.

Nettie Cleary
Nettie came from a family that was higher on the economic and social scale than the man she married. Nettie recalls that although they were not wealthy, they were never short of nice clothes or tickets to the opera. John’s family used to refer to her derisively as ‘‘The Lady.’’ As a young woman, Nettie had many suitors, but she chose John because he was witty and charming and looked as if he were going places in his career. She thought he would be able to give her the finer things in life. Although she had an intuition all along that they were not suited to each other, she married him anyway. But she now feels trapped in a bad marriage. When she returns home after having walked out and been on her own for twelve hours, she says it was the most complete freedom she has ever known. Although Nettie must have suffered much because of John’s infidelities, drinking, and bad temper, she is also capable of small cruelties and rejections of her own, as when she rebuffs John’s crude attempt to seduce her after their night out.

Nettie is a disappointed woman who has lost much of her enthusiasm for life. She wonders what her life might have been like had she made different choices, but it is too late for that now. She has compensated for her bad marriage by being overprotective towards her son, perhaps seeing in him the potential to become what she had hoped John would be. But even that emotional investment has backfired on her, as the twenty-one-year-old Timmy is no longer the boy she knew and has many resentments about how he was raised.

Timmy Cleary
Timmy is the twenty-one-year-old son of John and Nettie. He has just returned home after having served three years in the army during World War II. As a boy, he was sickly and often missed school. But he has acquitted himself well in the army, doing everything he was asked to do, although he made a point of not volunteering for anything.

Timmy has never been close to his father and has tended to blame him for the things that were wrong in their family. But when Timmy returns home, it is his mother, who insists on treating him like a child, that sparks his resentment. Timmy has grown up through being in the army and no longer wants decisions about how he will spend his time to be made by his mother. He is more independent now, with a sense of humor that his mother does not understand.

During the course of the play, Timmy has to come to terms with the family’s problems. He realizes that part of the difficulty is that he and his mother used to side with each other against his father. He is now able to see things more from his father’s point of view. To an extent, he takes after his father, since, like John, he reveals a fondness for alcohol. Witty and charming, Timmy must, in some respects, resemble his father as a young man.

By the end of the play, Timmy realizes that the destructive ways in which the family members relate to each other are so deeply entrenched that he must leave home if he is ever to escape them.