Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

Josephine (Jo)

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Josephine (Jo), who is about sixteen, in high school but preparing to drop out. She is attractive but without the instinctive sexuality of her mother, with whom she lives in squalor in the tenement slums of Manchester, England. The illegitimate daughter of (according to her mother) a retarded man, Jo is self-contained and more mature than her years, with an acerbic wit that more than matches her mother’s hardness, and with some signs of artistic talent. Unable to concentrate on her possibilities because of the transient nature of her upbringing, she tries to avoid succumbing to her mother’s lifestyle. She seeks affection in a brief affair with a black sailor, who leaves her pregnant. Fearing that her own father’s idiocy will be passed on to the child, she lives through her pregnancy dreading motherhood, cared for only by a homosexual friend.


Helen, Josephine’s mother, in her mid-to late thirties but looking younger. She is a “semi-whore”; she enters into relationships with the shared understanding that her needs and wants will be met. She is harsh, independent, and bruised by life’s experiences but capable of sustaining herself; she is also a constant and serious drinker. She lives off a series of male friends, moving from place to place to flee more complex relationships, dragging Jo with her from slum to slum. Her motherly instincts are confined to unemotional retreats from real contact, coupled with loud, sarcastic, scourging reprimands laced with indifference and self-indulgence, only occasionally alleviated by real but inarticulate concern. In her mind, there are no moral reservations about her way of life; it is a matter of survival. At her first opportunity, she marries a fairly affluent car salesman, leaving her daughter behind to fend for herself, as she has had to do. Only after he throws her out does she return to help her daughter give birth.

Peter Smith

Peter Smith, a successful car salesman, a heavy drinker who is younger than Helen, his lover. When he makes his offer of marriage to her, it is with the understanding that she will desert her daughter, a source of shame to him. He is flippant and disdainful when drunk, wearing a patch over one eye; he becomes vicious and dangerous when approaching sobriety, a state that he never reaches. In his hatred for Jo, which stems partly from repressed sexual attraction to her and partly from jealousy of the mother-daughter bond, he twice forces Helen to choose him over her daughter.

The Boy

The Boy, “a colored naval rating,” Jo’s boyfriend, who calls himself “the lascivious Moor.” He is young, handsome, romantic, and caring. He has a poetic nature and an unrealistic impression of their chances. On leave at Christmas, he courts Jo by carrying her books from school, offering her a Woolworth engagement ring, kissing her hand, quoting Shakespeare, and reciting nursery rhymes. He gives her the attention her mother never did. He dances with her, sings to her, and leaves her pregnant after the Christmas fair.

Geoffrey Ingram

Geoffrey Ingram, a young, effeminate boy whom Jo, several months pregnant, picks up and brings home, calling him “a big sister.” He is sensitive and loving without making any sexual demands. He is organized and a calming influence on Jo. He moves in and stays with her for the final months of her pregnancy, cooking, cleaning, and preparing to assist in the delivery itself. His attachment to Jo leads him to propose marriage. He leaves reluctantly when Helen returns for the actual birth, not because he is offended by her insults but because Jo, repeating the patterns of her mother, insulates herself against all men and lets him go.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

The Boy

(The entire section contains 1261 words.)

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Critical Essays