Joe Chapin is clearly the main character in Ten North Frederick, yet O’Hara gives almost equal time and attention to the people who figure prominently in Joe’s life. O’Hara’s method of examining his characters is always the same: In one part of the novel he devotes several pages to a full description of Edith in order to illustrate her extremely cold, rational, and calculating desire to control all the people around her (she marries Joe because she believes she will literally own him by doing so, for example). In another part of Ten North Frederick, O’Hara gives five pages to a contemplation of Mike Slattery’s life and political career, which blends impersonal or vindictive acts with those of unselfish generosity (he is a consummate politician). O’Hara regularly shifts into paragraph-long meditations that are designed to reveal a fundamental quality of each of his main characters. Joe’s best friend, Arthur McHenry, is perhaps the only purely good person in Gibbsville; yet his total dedication to Joe is powerless to prevent his best friend’s self-destruction. Ann, Joe’s favorite child (thirty-four years old in 1945), can sustain only physical relationships with men, which do not last very long. Joby, her brother, age thirty, gradually adopts a cynical attitude that barely disguises his inability to find any real direction in his life.
The portrait of Gibbsville life that emerges from such character descriptions is a detailed and complex one, especially as O’Hara weaves a large number of minor characters throughout the fabric of the Chapin world. One problem is that O’Hara rarely...
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