The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

After the revelations at the conclusion of the novel, it is easy to see that Alec Ramsey is a bit of an innocent in idealizing Leeming as he has, despite the fact that he is a man over sixty. Ramsey ought to have known better or at least to have made some attempt to find out the truth about Leeming and his death. It is difficult for the reader to think of Ramsey in quite that way, however, because it is his wry, often cunning, and rarely fooled common sense with which the third-person narrator identifies much of the time. Ramsey is unaggressive, but he is nobody’s fool, and the style of wise and witty distance which dominates and shapes the tone of the novel is shared by him and the narrator.

Style is, in large part, the key to Ramsey’s character as he moves through the corridors of university power, often taking the skin of hypocrisy and self-interest off everyone and everything in sight. This same capacity for looking through pretentious facades and around corners of dubious intention is allowed Ramsey’s wife, Ella, who is more than simply a pretty middle-aged face and who can turn a memorable phrase of genially destructive intent quite as quickly as can Ramsey himself. She is particularly memorable in the way that she can use her intelligence and good sense to try to strip Ramsey of his cloak of psychological gloom.

The poet, who is teasingly unnamed (one suspects that Thomas Keneally had someone well-known in Australian literary...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Alexander Ramsey

Alexander Ramsey, a former Antarctic explorer, the director of extension studies at a provincial Australian university. A large, homely man of sixty-two, Ramsey is debilitated with guilt at having survived Stephen Leeming, the leader of his Antarctic expedition, and at having slept with Leeming’s wife before the journey. Oversensitive to references to Leeming, Ramsey begins the novel by walking out of a Rotary Club meeting because of a casual inquiry. Preoccupied and neglectful of his university work, Ramsey thinks that he is approaching madness when he is informed that Leeming’s body has been found and is to be excavated. He flies to the Antarctic to watch the dig. Once it is completed, he achieves a new sense of mental well-being.

Ella Ramsey

Ella Ramsey, Ramsey’s wife and a part-time lecturer in the department of history at his university. She is forty-five years old and has an attractive Mediterranean appearance. Her life is dominated by the knowledge of her own infertility; her one pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. From that time, she abandoned her doctoral thesis and has redirected her energies into pottery and sparring with her husband. She has little patience for Ramsey’s fixation on Leeming, though she grudgingly supports him otherwise.

The poet

The poet, an Australian man of letters, small and intense. The poet is writing an extended poem about the Leeming expedition. He delivers the information of the discovery of Leeming’s body to Ramsey, thereby precipitating Ramsey’s crisis. Despite some initial distrust, he and Ramsey become friends.

Belle Leeming

Belle Leeming, the widow of Stephen Leeming. An elderly but still attractive and quick-witted woman, Belle led an unconventional earlier...

(The entire section is 749 words.)