Hugo Belfounder is a gentle soul who represents all that is good about people. He is a deep and profound thinker. He once worked in his parents’ fireworks factory, where he made intricate displays that earned good money for his father’s business. He could make the fireworks do fantastic things no one else could replicate. However, he tires of this profession and, upon inheriting the business, sells it and invests in a movie studio.
Hugo befriends the protagonist Jake while the two men are volunteering for medical research. They spend several days together in intense dialogue, which Jake transcribes and turns into a published book. Hugo falls in love with Sadie Quentin, Anna’s sister. It is Anna, however, who falls in love with Hugo. Hugo allows Lefty to use his studio to talk to a crowd of people about labor unions. During one such talk, Hugo is hit over the head and is taken to the hospital where Jake works. It is in the hospital that Hugo answers many of Jake’s questions.
Critics have noted that Hugo represents Murdoch’s interpretation of either Ludwig Wittgenstein or his pupil Yorick Smythies. It is through Hugo that Murdoch expresses some of Wittgenstein’s philosophical theories.
James (known as Jake) is the protagonist of the story. He spends his life doing as little work as possible, living in other people’s houses for free, and staying as clear of personal relationships as possible. He says his nerves are shattered. The closest he comes to being in love is his relationship with Anna, who has affection for him but is not in love with him; but her sister Sadie is in love with him. Jake temporarily moves in with Sadie to act as her bodyguard. It is through Sadie that Jake meets up with Hugo again after a long absence.
Jake is in many ways the antithesis of Hugo. Whereas Hugo is quiet and meditative, Jake hops around from situation to situation as quickly as one thought changes to another. His actions are completely spontaneous; he cannot have a concept in his mind without physically playing it out to see where it will lead him. When Dave mentions Anna, for example, Jake acts on impulse and goes in search of her immediately. Jake’s buddies Finn and Dave like to follow him around as they know there will be adventure involved in whatever Jake does.
Jake also reflects many attributes of the author, leading many critics to believe that Murdoch chose a male first-person narrator both to remove herself from the character and as a vehicle through which she could present many personal details of her own life.
Jake shies away from jobs and makes a very basic living wage by translating books. He feels he is a writer and carries around several half-completed manuscripts but, until the end of the novel, does not sit down and take the time to work on them. He is shiftless all through the novel, flitting from one adventure to the next, never finding that which he is seeking. At the climax of the story, he finally has some issues resolved and is able to make a commitment to settle down, get a job, and find out if he is really as smart and capable as he thinks he is.
Jean Pierre Breteuil
Jean Pierre Breteuil is a French author who writes mediocre stories, which Jake gets paid to translate. Toward the end of the novel, Breteuil writes his best work and wins a literary prize. This prompts Jake to want to compete with Breteuil to prove that he is more than just a good translator; he is a good writer too.
Magdalen (known as Madge) is living with Jake at the beginning of the novel, but she tells him he has to move out because Sammy is about to move in. Madge is in love with Jake, but Jake has refused to marry her. Madge later moves to France with a movie mogul with whom she has become involved. She finds that she has more money than she needs, so she offers to pay Jake a living wage without him needing to do much in return. She just wants Jake to be close to her.
See Peter O’Finney
Dave Gellman is Jake’s...
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