"The Waste Land" Characters

The main characters in "The Waste Land" by Alan Paton are the protagonist and Freddy.

  • The protagonist is an unnamed, working-class man who finds himself set upon by a gang of young men. In struggling to defend himself, he kills one of his pursuers, who is later revealed to be his son.
  • Freddy, a member of the gang, is the only named character in the story and the son of the protagonist. Neither his father nor the other members of the gang spend much time lingering over Freddy's death, emphasizing the callous and harsh environment in which the characters live.

Characters

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Last Updated on April 14, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

The protagonist

The protagonist of “The Waste Land” is never named and never explicitly described. Readers are given no direct information about his physical appearance, what he does for a living, or where he comes from. However, Paton does provide a number of subtle clues that paint a picture of the protagonist’s life.

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Given that he is traveling to and from work on a local bus and that he is being paid his wages in cash, which he then carries in his purse, it can be inferred that the protagonist is a manual laborer or another form of blue-collar worker. His money is important to him because it allows him to provide for his wife and children, whose well-being he worries about in the event of his death at the hands of the criminal gang. Though he describes himself as “law-abiding,” the protagonist is not naive, and when he spots the young men waiting for them, he immediately discerns their plan.

Throughout the story, the overriding emotion driving the protagonist’s behavior is fear. He is terrified of the young men, terrified of being attacked, and terrified of what may lie in the waste land waiting to entrap him. It is this fear which drives him to hit the approaching young man, Freddy, over the head with his stick, killing him almost instantly.

When the protagonist realizes he has killed his own son, he reacts with despair and resignation, burying his face in his arms and remarking, “People, arise! The world is dead.” His demonstration of grief is brief, and he quickly moves on, leaving his son’s body behind—an action that underscores the harsh reality of life in this society.

Freddy

Freddy is the only member of the criminal gang of young men who is named—in fact, he is the only character in the story who is named. Freddy’s name humanizes him, which serves to highlight the disrespectful treatment shown by his “friends,” who callously dispose of his body after his death.

Freddy approaches the protagonist in the waste land just when the bus is returning. The protagonist sees him approaching in the glare of the lights from the bus, which perhaps prevents the protagonist from recognizing him. In terror, the protagonist brings down his heavy stick on Freddy’s head, killing him. Only when the other young men come looking for the protagonist, whom they have lost sight of, do they find the body of Freddy lying on the ground. Their dialogue betrays the fact that they knew exactly who they were chasing in the waste land: Freddy’s father. 

There is little context offered for the relationship between the protagonist and Freddy beyond the protagonist’s brief expression of grief at the end of the story. It is implied that Freddy is the architect behind the attack, perhaps having told the rest of the gang when his father would be coming home with his wages. The revelation that Freddy is the protagonist’s son adds another level of betrayal to the encounter, suggesting that in a broken society, one can trust neither strangers nor family.

Ultimately, Freddy’s friends carelessly discard his body, tossing him under the truck. Their disregard for his corpse only further underscores the lawlessness and inhumanity of this world.

The criminal gang

The criminal gang comprises an unknown number of young men who are waiting in the darkness for the protagonist to exit the bus on his way home from work. The fact that the narrator immediately perceives why the young men are there and knows what they’re after suggests that robberies are commonplace in this environment. Other than Freddy, the young men remain unnamed, and the protagonist does not know how many of them there are. As the story unfolds, it can be inferred that the gang learned from Freddy that his father was to be paid on that day, and that he would therefore be traveling home with a purse full of money in his possession. 

Ultimately, their pursuit of the protagonist comes to nothing; they fail to notice that he is hiding underneath the lorry and leave the waste land assuming he has gotten away. There is very little honor among thieves in this group of young men, and when they find that Freddy had been killed, they simply throw his body under the truck. Their actions throughout the story paint a picture of a callous and brutal society.

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