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Although the priest Ralph de Bricassart occupies fewer pages in The Thorn Birds than the protagonist Meggie, his character has occasioned the most comment. Extremely good looking, compared by some critics to Rhett Butler, he never takes advantage of his looks to accept the many sexual opportunities afforded him, except for his brief lapse with Meggie. However, his ambition helps him connive to inherit a fortune which would have gone to Meggie's family, the Clearys. Ralph is a man destined to power, and one who wields it well and effectively, largely for the good of others. We see him, a bishop in the Curia in Rome in 1943, standing up to the German General Kesselring, and almost immediately later showing pity and compassion to a frightened, bewildered, yet intelligent and determined young German soldier who has become locked in St. Peter's basilica after coming there to pray.

The three Cleary women include Fiona (mother of Meggie and seven sons), a woman disillusioned and worn out by betrayal and overwork; Meggie, who seems to lose her love twice, when Ralph forsakes her in order to remain in the priesthood and when her son by Ralph joins the priesthood and dies young in a drowning accident; and Meggie's daughter, the willful and strangely unattractive Justine, who becomes an actress and attempts to have all the liberation and freedom her mother and grandmother missed.

Fiona, also known as Fee, loves her children, especially her oldest son, fiercely and unconditionally, but is unable to show the emotion that another woman might have felt naturally; work and hard life have crippled her ability to show her fierce love. That she loves her children is shown in the beginning of the novel when, although very poor, she nonetheless buys Meggie a doll for her birthday.

Meggie, the novel's central character, is buffeted by love and strives against her love for Ralph and her desire for a better life for herself and her family. Her fierce devotion to Drogheda, her ranch, keeps her going through many setbacks. When her son Dane dies, Meggie uses the fact that Dane is Ralph's son as well to try to get Ralph to use his influence to bring Dane home for burial.

Fiona's husband, Meggie's father, Paddy Cleary is a hardworking, simple, good hearted, and perpetually bewildered man who dies early. A man who believes in old ways and in keeping in one's place, he cannot afford for his children to remain in school, needing them on the home place to work; he believes as well in the strict delineation between woman's work and man's work. Both policies are hard on Fee and her eldest son, Frank, and this creates a rift between father and son. He is a character who imbues in his children the capacity for hard work and love for the land; an Irishman, he fled to New Zealand, where the novel begins, after killing an Englishman.

Paddy's sister, Mary Carson, is a hardhearted, wealthy, evil woman, who is infatuated with Ralph de Bricassart and leaves most of her vast fortune to him and the church. She dies after throwing a grand party on her seventy-second birthday, announcing that she will die that night; she does.

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