The Tunnel Characters
by William H. Gass

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The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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Although they are always seen through the narrator’s eyes, William H. Gass’s characters are fully developed, and the author uses different techniques to bring them to life. For the first hundred pages of the novel, Kohler mentions only snippets and fleeting impressions of other characters, which start to build in the reader’s mind. Initially, he circles around his former student and lover, Lou, the great love of his life, who leaves him when he tells her of his loathing for humankind. Tabor also appears early, and Kohler’s wife, Martha, is introduced with several pages of invective.

The circle widens to include Kohler’s family with a ten-page story about his Uncle Balt’s farm. Uncle Balt is carefully described, from the shape of his knuckles to his eating habits, and speaks in his own words. This sets the pattern for the novel; long sections of stream-of-consciousness narration interspersed with stories of the characters told by the narrator from a more detached viewpoint. The novel is not broken up into chapters, but the stories often have titles, such as “Learning to Drive,” about his father, “Aunts,” and the beautifully lyrical “Do Mountains,” about his love affair with Lou. Each of his colleagues has a section of his own. These individual sections are highly realistic and richly detailed, with physical descriptions of the characters and their distinctive patterns of speech. Although the reader learns not to trust the narrator’s view of others, the dialogue is so brilliant throughout the novel that each time a character speaks, he or she reveals much.

The most problematic character in the book is Kohler himself. Although he tells the story, it is obvious how others feel about him from their reactions. His mother, drifting further and further into fantasy and alcoholism, dotes on her only child, but it is clear she...

(The entire section is 474 words.)