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Although Bertram Cates is the reason for the play, he really plays a minor part, taking a back seat to the attorneys. Although he is an underdog who has the sympathy of the playwrights, he is in the shadow of the major underdog of the play, Henry Drummond. In fact, Cates has very few lines, and his personality is not well developed. He is a small town schoolteacher and seems to be one of the few thinking individuals in his town. He is daring enough to teach evolutionary theory in his class, even though he knows it is illegal; therefore, he seems to have some strong principles.
Cates is attracted to Rachel Brown, the daughter of the town's fundamental minister. Throughout the play, the relationship seems to be a mismatch, for Rachel is weak and feels that Cates should not be fighting the system. She even tells him to beg forgiveness and not go to trial. Filled with fear instilled
by her father, she is a product of her environment until the end of the play, when she sees that Cates has done the right thing. In spite of her weakness, Cates always stands behind her. Even when she testifies against him in the trial, he tells Drummond not to make her more miserable by cross-examining her.
Cates has become uncomfortable with Christianity, and no longer attends church because he feels that Reverend Brown is a heartless man. When one of his most promising students died and the minister refused to put him to rest with love and mourning; instead, Reverend Brown took the opportunity of the boy's funeral to teach a lesson on sin, redemption, and everlasting punishment. He told the congregation that the boy's soul would be in torment in Hell forever. As a result, Cates left the church.
Above all, Cates is a young man who wants to do right. Although he fears the town's ire against him and hates how he is being treated, he will continue to fight for what he believes is right, especially with the encouragement of Drummond. But he loves Rachel more than he loves winning and will sacrifice his case to protect her from further embarrassment and pain. In every way, the playwrights present Cates as a good person.
Rachel Brown, like Cates, is not a major character in the play. Even though she has more lines than he does, she has no real impact on the outcome of the plot. She does, however, change more than Cates, for at the end of the play she sees the value of Cates' fight and chooses to stand behind him. Rachel is a product of her environment. Raised by her father, the fundamentalist minister of Hillsboro whom she totally fears, she has never been given the opportunity to think for herself. She tells Hornbeck that all the answers of life are in the Bible and that there is nothing in the Bible that is not easily understood. By the end of the play, however, she attempts to be her own person and reads Darwin's book. Even though she cannot understand it, she accepts that Cates has the right to believe its teachings. This is a major change for Rachel, for in supporting Cates and leaving town with him, she is going against her father and all of her past instruction.