The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

The characters in Malamud’s novel function both as individuals and as stereotypes. Even though the characters of the two men are quite well developed, the writer clearly intends them to be types; the other characters are less developed.

Malamud uses names to suggest the character of people—an old technique used effectively, for example, in eighteenth century Restoration comedy. Willie Spearmint is possibly the most obvious, with its echoes of William Shakespeare; Harry Lesser is perhaps the “lesser man.” Mary Kettlesmith seems to tie in to the old adage about “the pot calling the kettle black.” Levenspiel is certainly a stereotype of the moneymaking Jew. None of the characters is particularly sympathetic. The Jewish writer who should represent a humanistic tradition is obsessed with “form” in art, while the black writer seems to represent raw talent and “experience” as the necessary component of art.

Harry is working on his third novel. He mentions a first one, good, and a second one, bad, which was bought for a film, and Harry is living from the royalties. His current book has been ten years in the process. He refuses to move because he wants to finish his book where it was born; the irony is that he cannot finish his book in his condition of self-imposed isolation from life.

Harry lives in fear of the jungle outside his apartment. His apartment is an island in New York City, a place of withdrawal. Harry’s fantasies are populated by islands— stereotyped romantic ones, mysterious and beautiful, with crashing waves, trees, flowers, and native dancing girls, specifically one beautiful Mary Kettlesmith. Harry also lives in fear of fire, a real enough fear in a deserted tenement. At one point, he cries, “Where can I run with my paper manuscript?” He carefully puts a carbon copy of his current writing in a bank-deposit vault. Ironically, all the copies of his manuscript are burned by Willie and his friends. Doubly ironic is the probability that they may have been doing him a favor. Unwilling to participate in life, Harry also fears death. He feels that each book nudges him closer to death and absurdly tries to hold it off, reflecting that “one thing about writing a book” is that one can “keep death in place.”

Willie Spearmint comes into Harry’s carefully ordered sterile retreat, another writer poaching on Harry’s territory with his ancient typewriter. Willie might be the means of engaging Harry in life, but that process turns sour when they compete for a woman as well as for creativity. Willie is viewed through Harry’s consciousness. Willie, however, does have a life beyond the tenement. He comes during the day to work on his writing. He lives with a girlfriend, Irene Bell, but leaves her place in order to write. He is an unskilled raw talent trying to use his writing as a means of black activism. He asks Harry to read his manuscript and possibly help him with the formal aspects of writing.

The two women characters function as objects of competition for the men. Mary Kettlesmith is little more than a symbol so that Harry can sleep with a black woman. Irene Bell is more important to the novel in that she is central to the essential conflict between commitment to humanity and commitment to art. She could have become the way back to life for Harry, or earlier for Willie, although neither of the men is ever aware of it; she ends up being used and ignored. Harry’s initial attachment to Irene is sexual, then romantic. He professes love for her, but his only real commitment is to his work. During the relationship with her, he is engaging in life and thus freed to write: “It helped him write freely and well after having had to press for a while.” The irony is that he never realizes that commitment in a human relationship might be his own salvation as well as hers, and he refuses to discuss marriage until the book is finished.

Irene is the only one of the triangle who shows concern for others as human beings. Although no longer in love with Willie, she continues to show concern for him as a man and for his writing. She comes to realize that both men are married only to their work. She ultimately is rejected by both; their writing takes first priority always. She leaves New York for San Francisco.

Levenspiel is never more than a type. His character is not developed, and he lives on the fringes of Harry’s life, his only concern being materialism. He does conclude the novel with a plea for mercy for all of them, but the reader has no indication of his motive for doing so.

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