The Vanishing Half Characters
The main characters in The Vanishing Half are Desiree Vignes, Stella Vignes, Jude Winston, and Kennedy Sanders.
- Desiree Vignes is Stella's twin sister. She is expressive and open, and she chooses to remain close to her roots in Mallard.
- Stella Vignes is Desiree's twin sister. Unlike Desiree, Stella chooses to pass as white, leaving her family and heritage behind.
- Jude Winston is Desiree's daughter. She is intelligent and kind and working to become a doctor. She reconnects her family after decades of separation and secrecy.
- Kennedy Sanders is Stella's daughter. She is self-centered and becomes an actress. She is raised as white and knows little of her mother's background.
Last Updated on August 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1386
Desiree and her twin, Stella, are born in 1938 in the small Louisiana town of Mallard. Both of them, like most of the town’s Black residents, are light-skinned and can “pass,” meaning they can appear white to anyone unaware of their background.
Desiree is the more impulsive, demonstrative, and open of the two. It is her idea that she and Stella should leave Mallard in 1954, when they are sixteen, though when she begins to waver from the plan to go, Stella urges her on. After the two first travel to New Orleans and then part from each other, Desiree goes to Washington, D.C., obtaining a job as a fingerprint reader for the FBI.
In contrast to her sister, Desiree seems to embrace her racial identity by falling in love with and marrying attorney Sam Winston, a Black man whose skin is darker than Desiree’s. When Sam becomes abusive, Desiree takes the initiative to leave him, fleeing with her seven-year-old daughter, Jude, and returning to Mallard, where she moves back in with her mother, Adele.
Desiree’s character is a combination of assertiveness and, paradoxically, passivity. She strikes out on her own, obtains employment far from home. But then out of necessity, she returns home and, until the close of the story, lives in Mallard and works at a local diner.
Stella Vignes is Desiree’s twin sister. Looked at from one perspective, Stella is a false, hypocritical person who abandons her family and disavows her background. She chooses to pass as white and even acts in the manner of a bigoted white person, in effect teaching her daughter the n-word. Through her comment that a black man is making her “uncomfortable,” she precipitates the harassment and expulsion of the Walker family from her neighborhood. Her behavior is defensive and at least subconsciously calculated to hide her own identity and protect her daughter, but the depiction of Stella's falseness is a brutal one.
Yet the author, in the end, does not appear to condemn or judge Stella. As reprehensible as Stella’s hypocrisy is, her actions can be understood as her attempt to attain security, a good home, a wealthy husband, and the best schooling for her child. Stella is not necessarily a bad person. She genuinely loves her husband and her daughter. Though she has turned her back on her own family, she does return to them in the end and gives up her wedding ring in order to pay for her mother’s care. If anything can summarize Stella’s character, it is that she makes choices driven by self-interest and which are inevitably open to harsh criticism. Moreover, it can be argued that the fault ultimately lies in the dysfunctional racial dynamic of America, for that is the context in which Stella makes her choices.
Adele Vignes is the mother of Desiree and Stella. Relatively little of Adele is shown, but readers understand that she is a typical hard-working mother who has no choice but to pull her girls out of school and make them go to work after tenth grade. More of Adele is revealed toward the close of the story, when she begins to suffer from dementia. In her condition, she remembers the distant past with greater clarity than the present, recognizing her daughter instantly when Stella returns home after an absence of thirty-five years. That Adele is buried in the “colored” section of the cemetery is symbolic of the nation’s ongoing racial divide.
Jude, the daughter of Desiree, is a young woman of integrity who pursues and succeeds in multiple goals...
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despite the odds being stacked against her. Her mother flees with her from her abusive husband, Jude’s father. Jude, who is relatively dark-skinned, is then thrust into an environment in Mallard, Louisiana where she is the Other, even among African-American children.
Jude attends college in California, eventually going to medical school and becoming a physician. She falls in love with and maintains a long-term partnership with Reese, a transsexual man, and helps pay for his reassignment surgery. She connects with her cousin Kennedy and succeeds in making both Kennedy and Kennedy’s mother, Stella, acknowledge that they are all of the same family.
Jude is arguably the most admirable character in the novel. Unlike others in the story, there is not a trace of falseness or ill will in her behavior or character.
Kennedy Sanders, the daughter of Stella and Blake Sanders, grows up as a spoiled young girl in the upscale L.A. neighborhood of Brentwood. She does poorly in school and becomes a party girl but with the ambition to be an actress. Eventually, after playing bit parts for years, she lands a prominent role on a daytime soap opera.
Her cousin Jude meets her and does not at first reveal that they are related. Kennedy reflexively treats Jude as a kind of servant, asking her to do menial tasks. This behavior, which reveals Kennedy’s racial biases, is out of keeping with the cultural climate of the 1980s.
As with her acting career, going from one part to another, Kennedy dates many men, unlike Jude, who has a long-term relationship with Reese. After her acting career is over, Kennedy’s new work in real estate is shown to be another kind of acting. Eventually, Kennedy grows emotionally and accepts the reality of her family and background. She compels her mother to do the same, though Stella never reveals this to her husband, Blake. Still, progress and a kind of redemption have been achieved, both for Kennedy and for Stella.
Reese Carter is Jude’s long-term partner, whom Jude meets in Los Angeles. Reese is transsexual, and the novel traces some of Reese journey as a trans man. He is undeniably a good person, sincere and caring. It is clear that he is in love with Jude and wants their relationship to last. Again, the issue of gradations of skin color within the African-American community comes into play. Reese is light-skinned, and Jude is dark-skinned. The expectation, as Kennedy callously indicates to Jude in an offhand remark, is supposed to be that such men inevitably prefer women with lighter skin. In a cultural context that places great attention on light versus dark complexions, Reese is shown to be independent of mind.
Sam Winston is an attorney in D.C. who marries Desiree in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. It is noteworthy that Sam is darker-skinned that Desiree. At first, Sam seems to be an ideal husband. But later he becomes abusive verbally and physically, and when Desiree flees with their daughter Jude, Sam hires a bounty hunter to track them down. Early Jones, the hunter, drops the case deliberately, throwing Sam off the track. After this point, Sam disappears from the storyline and nothing more is said about his life or his whereabouts.
Early Jones is Desiree’s partner. Early first meets Desiree in Mallard when they are youths, and he briefly flirts with her. Later, working as a bounty hunter, Early is assigned to find her. In doing so, he reconnects with her, abandoning his task of informing his client of her whereabouts. He and Desiree begin a long-lasting relationship, though he comes and goes and they never marry. He is a generally upright man and is a key part of the story of the Vignes family.
Blake Sanders, Stella’s husband, is a neutral character. A wealthy businessman, Blake is privileged and bigoted, but not in ways that are unusual for his time and place. He is not a virulent racist, but he never seems progressive or anti-racist either. He doesn’t appear to take a stand on anything. The fact that he never suspects that Stella is Black isn’t an indication that he is any different from the other prejudiced whites. One senses that if he had had any suspicions about Stella’s background, he would not have married her. Yet at the same time he is not an intrinsically bad person, and he provides for—and is consistently loyal to—his wife and daughter.