Thomas and Beulah

by Rita Dove

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The characters or Rita Dove's award-winning 1986 novel Thomas and Beulah include the titular characters as well as their relations. The novel is divided into two parts, each of several poems.

The novel's first part, "Mandolin" recounts Thomas's history. Thomas was born in Tennessee and was a traveling performer on a riverboat on the Mississippi River. One evening, Thomas challenges a friend to swim to an island, causing him to drown. Thomas moves to Akron, Ohio in 1921, where he works for Goodyear, where he eventually begins working on a giant blimp. When the blimp is launched, several of the employees accidentally ascend with it. Thomas courts Beulah, a woman from Georgia. Thomas enjoys becoming grandfather to several grandchildren, and dies in 1963, after having suffered a stroke on the way to the drugstore for heart medication.

Beulah (whose story is told in the second part, "Canary in Bloom") is a self-effacing, introspective woman whose imagination takes her far beyond her limited world. Her mother is a washerwoman, and her father resents his joblessness, arriving home drunk and once attempting to assault Beulah. Beulah's mother intervenes on behalf of her child. Beulah herself procures work in a dress shop, but is confined to the back of the store with other colored women. Beulah is at first anxious at becoming a mother, but eventually settles into her domesticated role, with her imagination to liberate her. Beulah suffers from glaucoma at the end of her life, and dies in 1969.

Lem, Thomas's childhood friend, is another main character, though he dies at the beginning of the novel. Thomas feels tremendously guilty for having caused the death of Lem, whom Thomas challenged him to swim to an island from the riverboat on which they travelled. Lem haunts Thomas's life, and, in the chapter titled "Charmed," indicates that he is not hauling Thomas, but "charming" his life. The mandolin that remains a major part of Thomas's life once belonged to Lem.

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