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• JACK'S MOTHER
Whenever Jack visits his mother, he is torn between enjoying her attention to him and experiencing hostility toward her. Some readers believe that Jack's ambivalent feelings for his mother are indicative of an Oedipus complex, the unconscious desire of a son to be attached to his mother. When Ellis Burden abandoned six-year-old Jack and his mother, Jack concentrated all his affections on his mother. But she remarried, bringing first one stepfather into the house, then another. Jack had to share his mother's love with strangers. The resulting resentments, according to psychiatrists, could cause deep-seated emotional conflicts toward one's mother as well as toward all women. Does this theory help to explain Jack's emotional detachment or his love-hate relationship to his mother? Or could it be that his mother's materialistic nature and lack of commitment to marriage are responsible for Jack's behavior toward her? Jack's mother is not given a name, yet she remains a fascinating character. Despite her apparent fickleness, when she realizes that Jack's natural father, Judge Irwin, has been her only true love, she becomes the ultimate source for Jack's reentry into the rich stream of life.
• ANNE STANTON
Since college Jack has been in love with Anne. The two grew up together and planned to be married. But when Jack actually got around to proposing, Anne put him off. She was waiting for him to find directiona career or a social cause or whatever her "Jackie-Bird" wanted to do. Jack, however, had no ambitions. Thus, in contrast to Anne's highly respected father, Governor Stanton, and to her brother, Adam, the famous surgeon, Jack was a poor marriage risk. What do Anne's expectations in a husband reveal about her character?
When you first meet Anne, she is an unmarried woman approaching middle age, a volunteer charity worker. Her life seems empty, and she relies upon the traditions of her aristocratic upbringing to give her support. Jack still regards her as an unblemished, highly desirable woman; he is fascinated by her graceful movements and her "woman's laugh"- until he learns she has become Willie's mistress. He can't understand her actions and blames himself. Why has Anne gravitated toward Willie? What does Willie do for her that Jack can't?
• ADAM STANTON
A product of Southern aristocracy, Adam is proud of his heritage, even driven to live up to its ideals, as embodied by his father, Governor Stanton. Like Willie, he is committed to doing good for people, A famous surgeon, he works tirelessly, often without pay, to provide the people with excellent health care. He is striving to achieve the same ends as Willie, but their views on how to get things done clash. Adam thinks in terms of honorable traditions; Willie thinks in terms of manipulating people.
Ironically, each man's strength is also his fatal weakness. Willie's ideal of economic well-being can be accomplished, he believes, only by using bad practices to get good results, at least to get them quickly. And he'll do whatever it takes to get Adam as director of his hospital. But he lets Anne and Jack do the dirty work. When Anne confronts Adam with his father's role in Judge Irwin's scandal, his ideals are shattered. He agrees to direct the hospital. Does he do so as some kind of atonement (payment) for his father's sin? Does the revelation weaken his resistance to being employed by a corrupt politician? Or has he all along wanted to have the power, as well as the vast opportunity to do good, that the directorship brings?
• ELLIS BURDEN
Jack impersonally refers to Ellis Burden, who he thought was his father, as the Scholarly Attorney. When Jack was six, the Scholarly Attorney left his luxurious home, his lucrative law practice, and his attractive wife. He went to the capital city to write religious pamphlets and to help the "unfortunates." Jack never understood Burden's desertion. Many years later, after Judge Irwin's death, Jack discovers the reason: The Scholarly Attorney was not his natural father. Jack was conceived during an affair between the Judge and his mother. After this revelation, Jack's view of the Scholarly Attorney as a weak man is reinforced. Nevertheless, Jack acknowledges the man's sensitivity and compassion.
• SAM MACMURFEE
Sam MacMurfee, a powerful politician, is Willie's archenemy. He is often mentioned, but never makes an appearance in the novel. Why do you think he is never shown in a face-to-face confrontation with Willie? What reasons could Jack Burden, the narrator, have for not showing MacMurfee in action?
• CASS MASTERN
Cass Mastern appears as part of a story within the story. While a college student, Cass had an affair with the wife of his best friend, Duncan Trice. When Duncan found out, he killed himself. Hence, Cass spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his intense feelings of guilt. As a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, Cass sought death. Finally, a bullet found him. Cass's story was to be the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation that Jack never wrote.
Some readers view the Cass Mastern story in Chapter 4 as an unnecessary digression in the novel. Others, however, see Cass as a major figure and compare him with other characters-for instance, with Willie and the Scholarly Attorney and even with Adam Stanton and Judge Irwin. Is Jack's inability to understand Cass's sense of guilt a symptom of Jack's withdrawal from human involvement? Why do you think the novel ends with Jack's writing a book on Cass Mastern?