The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Loretta is the character who sets the story in motion, yet she is the least conscious of her connections to the world that she represents and engenders, a world glamorized by films and magazines. She concentrates, rather, on her own body, her own concerns—the way she looks in the mirror, the way her hair is styled. Although she is constantly pushed around, she swears that she lets no one boss her. She is a brilliant creation that allows the author to explore the efforts of a second generation to deal with conflicts and contradictions that Loretta cannot contemplate. She is, in a sense, so close to the culture which shapes her that she cannot differentiate herself from it.

Jules, on the other hand, fights his father and his society. As a child he is fascinated by the destructive power of fire and burns down a barn; years later he will be in the forefront of rioters planning the conflagration of a whole society. Jules has all the violent tendencies of Loretta’s brother, Brock, and like his uncle, Jules murders a man, a policeman who is meant, no doubt, to be reminiscent of his father, Howard. Yet Jules is also capable of tender love, not only for Nadine—the rich girl he meets while delivering flowers in Grosse Pointe—but also for his mother and sister, to whom he writes moving letters.

Maureen, who has passively shared much of her mother’s degradation, sees in Jules the hope of her life. Yet her aspirations, unlike his, are essentially...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Loretta Wendall

Loretta Wendall, née Botsford, the mother of Jules and Maureen. A generally passive and not particularly intelligent woman, she has an extravagantly romantic nature that is never satisfied. Her one truly independent gesture, an escape to Detroit from the stifling home of her in-laws, ends in humiliation but does achieve her goal of leaving the country for the city. As she grows older, she becomes more limited in her aspirations and more shrewish in her complaints. She is crudely racist and moralistic but is also a survivor in a brutal and violent environment. She drinks to avoid facing the blankness of much of her life and generally neglects her family. She changes character, dreams, lifestyle, and men, depending on her situation. Her children are baffled and frustrated by her inconsistencies in behavior and in her often irrational and unpredictable actions toward them. The Detroit riots destroy her home, but rather then discouraging or defeating her, this experience actually rekindles some of her old desire for adventure and excitement.

Howard Wendall

Howard Wendall, Loretta’s husband and the father of Jules and Maureen. Stolid and unintelligent, Howard is dominated by his mother. A policeman at the start of the book, he is later forced to work at jobs that he hates. Unable to meet the emotional needs of his wife or of his children, he has become a mere shell by the time of his death.


(The entire section is 477 words.)


The most memorable character in them is Loretta Wendall, whose affectionate relationship with her children, through all the ups and downs of a tragic, degrading life, shapes a stunning portrait of triumph over adversity. Her optimistic son Jules, who is still looking and hoping for the American dream after being shot by his girlfriend Nadine, is a powerful affirmative voice in the novel. Nadine herself, with her endless hair washing and response to both love and wealth, is suggestive of the neuroses fostered by modern social conditions. Maureen, who experiences, seriatim, a life of prostitution and rape, a beating, a coma, and an adulterous affair, represents the type of modern individual who sees all experiences as morally indifferent. Even relatively minor characters, like the continually nagging and subtly powerful Grandma Wendall, who maintains her authority even while bedridden in a nursing home, illustrate that vital energy and damnable bad luck that mark the Oates fictional character. With the exception of Jules, the male characters are lightly and stereotypically drawn.