The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The only fully developed character in the novel is Father Dowling himself, and even he is developed only to the extent that he is his obsession with the prostitutes. He is characterized as the most eager young priest at the Cathedral, one who is loved by all who meet him. The other characters in the story, however, are never quite sure whether he is a naive innocent, a hypocritical lecher, or a truly saintly figure. Many times the reader is not sure either.

Although Ronnie is older and wiser than the young and “innocent” Midge, there is little in the novel to characterize the two girls as anything more than two young women who, because of the economic conditions of the time, have been driven to prostitution. Ronnie comes from a broken home in Detroit. She enters prostitution by accepting gifts from men to help pay her rent. After losing her job, she takes to the street full-time. Midge came from Montreal with a lover, who then abandoned her. The other characters, Lou and Mr. Baer, for example, seem more representative than real, for they represent sensual and cynical antagonists to Father Dowling.

The relatively two-dimensional nature of the characters is the reader’s first clue to the basically allegorical intent of the novel. Father Dowling’s love for the young girls is so unselfish that it approaches the Christlike. Consequently, Ronnie and Midge represent Mary Magdalene or the adulterous woman from the New Testament, while Robison is like a Judas and the Bishop like Pontius Pilate. Satan is represented both by Lou and by the hotelkeeper. All this is not to suggest that Father Dowling is a Christ figure in this novel, but rather that the novel makes use of characters who replicate biblical figures in order to explore, not a social problem, but a theological problem about the nature of love.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Father Stephen Dowling

Father Stephen Dowling, a large, handsome young priest, dark-haired and fresh faced, one year out of the seminary. He serves the Roman Catholic cathedral under the pastor, Father Anglin. Father Dowling is interested in social causes, and his fervent sermons frequently disturb the wealthier parishioners. Returning from a deathbed, Father Dowling is accosted by two young prostitutes who do not see the clerical collar under his coat. Initially ignoring them in anger and confusion, he decides to return and speak to them, ashamed of his lack of pity for their wretchedness. Motivated at first by a sense of duty to his parishioners, Father Dowling decides to help the two women, visiting them repeatedly and giving them whatever money he can spare or borrow, even the money he normally sends to help support his mother and brother. Although at rare moments he is tempted physically, his feelings for the women are dominated by a Christian love for the weak and unfortunate. Realizing that one of the women is sick, and that in spite of all that he can give them they continue to work as prostitutes, Father Dowling impulsively appeals to the richest and most powerful of his parishioners, James Robison, to find honest work for them. The meeting with Mr. Robison is a failure: The girls insult him and his wife. Mr. Robison feels compelled to report Father Dowling’s involvement with the women to the bishop. Father Dowling continues to visit the women at the hotel where they live and work until, shortly after the meeting with Mr. Robison, the women are arrested and ordered to leave town. Father Dowling is called to see the bishop and told that he has behaved wrongly. He refuses to agree with the bishop that his love for the women is inappropriate, and while he awaits the bishop’s discipline, he becomes increasingly withdrawn and depressed. He is unable to reconcile his strong love for the women—and his belief that it is his duty to save them—with the bishop’s contention that he loved the women for themselves rather than for the sin from...

(The entire section is 845 words.)