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Memorable Characterization in American Literature Essay

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Updated: Oct 7th, 2021


Of all the elements in literature, I find character to be the most compelling. Countless masterpieces are remembered mostly for their characters, even though there are many other elements which certainly contributed greatly and without which the work would have, at least, suffered greatly, if they did not fail completely. It is my belief that a great piece of literature must combine all of the important elements to succeed, but character is what draws me in. In thinking on this I took the three most memorable examples of character in all the literature which I have read, and examined them carefully to see what made them work so well. I came to the conclusion that it was their “human-ness” that made them so. I chose to examine The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury.


After considerable careful consideration I chose these three of all the works I remember for the characters, because of the different ways they accomplished this. All three works are powerful and emotionally charged, and each is unique in how the characters are revealed to the audience and how easy it is to identify with them. The fish and the fisher-woman in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem are bound together in a moment. Tim O’Brien’s soldiers are equally bound, yet each is alone with their thoughts, fears and needs. Bradbury’s house is pitifully all alone and dying.

The methods of revealing the characters and how the authors’ managed to entice the audience to identify with the characters are only similar in that they are each quite unique. Elizabeth Bishop introduces us to the fish as “tremendous” in the first line and we imagine a huge and very beautiful fish with lovely shiny silver and rainbow-hued scales and bright eyes and pink flesh. Her description during the rest of the poem is a total contradiction. O’Brien introduces us to First Leutenant Jimmy Cross by revealing the letters he carried in the bottom of his rucksack and his ritual attachment to them and the dreams they invoked. Bradbury introduces the house by repeating its good-morning ritual: “In the living room the voice-clock sang, _Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock!_ as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness. Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine!” (1959) Each of these introduction to the characters invites the audience to see more and draws them in.

In each of these works the characters are not what we expect. The fish is a hero and the fisher-woman is a conquering champion. The soldiers are survivors, mostly, though some die during the story. The automated house is the very last vestige of human population on the earth, the sad symbol of humanity and all its accomplishments. In each of these works, the authors showed us only the “telling details”, carefully selected detail which reveal key elements of the characters. All three works are sparing with exposition, wasting few words on telling about the characters. Instead we are shown what would only be seen by someone very close to and carefully observant of the characters. The fish is very minutely examined by the narrator as she inspects her “prize”. O’Brien shows us the secrets of the soldiers and shares with us some of their innermost thoughts, hopes and memories. As we observe the house with Bradbury we almost feel as if we are in it. His masterful pacing drags us along the pathway to its destruction. This narrative poem, which is part of the novel The Martian Chronicles, is the most unusual of the three works in that the only character is the house, and it is a metaphor for all of humanity on earth. In spite of the different method of characterization used by O’Brien, his characters are men, real men. Bishop’s fish is, at least, a living thing, representative of a respected opponent and the narrator is a living human. The house is personified by its human like actions as it dies. It represents everything human saw fit to put into a home, and the last human thing left on earth.

The characterization done in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is done by means of a monologue as the narrator examines this “great” (meaning large) fish she has caught. We think that, perhaps, this was not a worthy opponent at all when she says it did not fight when being caught. Fishermen expect a fish to fight, and it is considered part of the fun of fishing to bring in a fish that fought hard. Then we see that he is very old and ugly.

He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.

The word “venerable” has a double meaning here, as she is also telling us that he is not just very old, but also, “worthy of respect as a result of great age, wisdom, remarkable achievements, or similar qualities”. (Encarta 2008) So the picture changes. As she describes the fish in great detail, we see the remnants of past battles, and realize that this fish has gone through a great deal. Our respect for him grows. Bishop describes in great and wonderfully graphic detail, as she was also an artist, and her description of even the ugliest things becomes soft and beautiful, more like an antique than an ugly old fish with phrases like “ancient wallpaper”, “roses stained and lost through age” and “fine rosettes of lime”. Her descriptive words are highly evocative and we can almost see this fish she has caught.

Next we begin to identify with this fish as the narrator does when she describes him “breathing in the ‘terrible’ oxygen” with his “frightening gills”. She muses about what cannot be seen and describes his inner flesh, bones and organs as if she were painting them for us.

the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

She looks into his eyes and describes how the fish has old yellowed lenses and begins to personify this fish. The poet has made a connection with this fish.

irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.

The word “isinglass” means more here than just the clear fluid from fish bladders used for clarifying beers and fine wines, since she says it is old and scratched. While I got several definitions from various dictionaries of this word, none included something my grandmother said about thinking it was a liquid filled glass magnifier, much like an old coke bottle bottom filled with water. I was unable to confirm this. However, the alternate definition of a “fine sheet of mica” could also be scratched. There is really no way now to know exactly what the poet meant here, but I tend to think it was not accidental that isinglass is a clarifying agent and a thin sheet of fools’ gold. In any case, it is a lovely word and provides a wonderful sound to this line.

While Bishop’s narrator admires his sullen face and jaw, she discovers hooks embedded in his flesh, some with strong broken lines and even swivels with multiple hooks attached. This fish has fought at least five big battles and broken the line and gotten away.

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.

Suddenly she realizes that this fish is a prize as “victory filled up the little rented boat” and everything turns into rainbows, like the oil on the bilge water spreading.

until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

We see what she sees and understand what she feels as she lets the fish go. We identified first with the fish, and then we transfer to the narrator as she feels the joy of a once-in-a-lifetime catch. It echoes of the gladiators of ancient Rome, who might be freed by the crowd is they fought well. Bishop saw the evidence and judged this fish valiant, a fighter, a noble adversary, making catching him a huge victory. So she rewarded his long life of fighting and let him go.

O’Brien uses a different kind of description, though just as minute. He describes the things carried by the soldiers in a Vietnam campaign, including why they carry them, whay they are important. He introduces us to Leutenant Cross first, and then tells us about the rest of the group. He says. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.” We find that he lists things we might not think about, such as “salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid” He tells us that the bare necessities “weighed fifteen to twenty pounds”. We begin to understand how important things they carried were, since they were part of this heavy load. However, more than this we begin to understand these men by what extras they carried, such as peaches in heavy syrup or dental floss and soap. We also begin to understand their total isolation in a foreign environment, far from “civilization”.

We are told about their fear in a very simple way: Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. Then the rest of the equipment is added in a little at a time, until we realize that these soldier are heavily burdened and slogging through jungle muck in tropical heat. Dave Jensen, who carried the soap etc also carried three pairs of socks and foot powder to prevent trench foot. Various other items are described and added, comic books, a bible, photographs and a hatchet, each other, and we begin to get a complete picture of these men, ordinary Americans from different ethnic backgrounds with very different needs, banded together to survive.

We are brought back to Leutenant Cross, with the description of the memories attached to his photographs of virginal Martha, the girl he almost left behind. He imagines a much closer relationship with Martha than really exists, and we understand this is a survival tactic. He has someone to live for. We have identified with Leutenant Cross more than the other men, partly because O’Brien keeps coming back to him and describes more about him, and partly because he is the most attractive of a motley group. Next we begin to understand that the writer is talking about all the things these men carried, and the physical items were not the heaviest load.

As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a.45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe fight and the responsibility for the lives of his men.

Now we understand that he carries the heaviest load of all, unless “the unweighed fear” of Ted Lavender, who had been carrying tranquilizers, marijuana and 20 extra pounds of ammo,and “went down under an exceptional burden” counted for more than the twin weights of responsibility and guilt carried by Cross.

The author uses a rather distant third person throughout the story and repeats one phrase like a litany: The things they carried…. were largely determined by necessity… was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty… whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive…varied by mission…the emotional baggage oif men who might die. Most of the things O’Brien lists are either extremely practical, highly emotionally charged (like photographs), intangibles, like fear, or odd bits of telling details that help us to understand these men.

They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself. Vietnam, the place, the sod -a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

By constantly returning to Leutenant Cross we begin to understand him and feel his pain, doubt and guilt. We have identified with all of these soldiers, and understood the importance of the things they carried, and have been drawn in past the perceptions of the narrator, feeling as if we may know more than he does, since he is only a detached observer. At the end we understand completely when Cross burns his pictures and we empathize, because we know it will not lessen his pain. We also know something he does not know, that his resolution to change is possibly not a solution, even though he might preven further deaths, but he will never know.

Ray Bradbury departs totally from human beings. There are none in this segment of The Martian Chronicles. In fact, the book will end on the note that human “earthlings” have ceased to exist and the survivors are now “martians”. However, the house is as human as any other character in any other poem or story. It fears when strangers approach: “it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia.” We are introduced to the house through its morning ritual:

In the living room the voice-clock sang, _Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock!_ as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness. _Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine!

Bradbury’s wonderful imagery and description using just the right words makes us an invisible observer inside the house. The voices are human and they sound human. The details of the daily routine tell us that this was a house filled with humans, that it took care of them. We like this house. It is behaving like a good nanny, almost a mother. Bradbury uses all five senses to communicate the images of the house going about its assigned tasks. It has even taken care of the family dog, somehow left alive. This caretaker house is still trying to take care of the family whose last vision of existence is indelibly painted on its wall.

In spite of our impression that this house is more human than house, Bradbury interjects reminders that it is mechanical: Somewhere in the walls, relays clicked, memory tapes glided under electric eyes…. The rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal… When the dying dog arrives, the house reacts to the mud he tracks. “Behind it whirred angry mice, angry at having to pick up mud, angry at inconvenience.” When the dog dies : Delicately sensing decay at last, the regiments of mice hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind.

However, it is the voices that really draw us in. They are the symbol of all the voices of humanity. Throughout the narrative poem, which some call a story, the voices chime in rhyming phrases: “Rain, rain, go away; rubbers, raincoats for today…” Sometimes the voices sing, sometimes they narrate nursery images and sometimes they read poetry. Always they accompany human activity, even when no human is there. When the voice reads Sara Teasdale’s poem we understand the finality of the scene and we feel sorry for the house left all alone, the only thing that cares that humanity is gone.

“And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.” (Teasdale)
In the final scene we witness the battle between the house and the fire:
At ten o’clock the house began to die.

The wind blew. A falling tree bough crashed through the kitchen window. Cleaning solvent, bottled, shattered over the stove. The room was ablaze in an instant! “Fire!” screamed a voice. The house lights flashed, water pumps shot water from the ceilings. But the solvent spread on the linoleum, licking eating under the kitchen door, while the voices took it up in chorus: “Fire, fire, fire!”

The voices are everywhere as the house tries to save itself. However, it is powerless, since the reserve water has run out, not replenished by the missing humans. Even the fire is personified as it “feeds upon” masterpieces of art. We see the last battle for humanity, the humanity of the house, played out between the house and the fire.

But the fire was clever. It had sent flames outside the house, up through the attic to the pumps there. An explosion! The attic brain which directed the pumps was shattered into bronze shrapnel on the beams.

The house reacts like a human:

the stove could be seen making breakfasts at a psychopathic rate, ten dozen eggs, six loaves of toast, twenty dozen bacon strips, which, eaten by fire, started the stove working again, hysterically hissing!

One by one the voices have died. We hear them as they chorus their predetermined and very human lines.

And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone. And the voices fading as the wires popped their sheathings like hot chestnuts. One, two, three, four, five voices died. …..

Ten more voices died. In the last instant under the fire avalanche, other choruses, oblivious, could be heard announcing the time, playing music, cutting the lawn by remote-control mower, or setting an umbrella frantically out and in the slamming and opening front door, a thousand things happening, like a clock shop when each clock strikes the hour insanely before or after the other, a scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away! And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked……

Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:

“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”

This final dying chorus of voices is a powerful sound image, symbolic of the millions of dying human voices and it so humanizes the house that we react emotionally as if a person had died. That one last voice is the symbol of the final insane parroting of human need, a sort of eulogy sounding out from the tombstone like section of surviving wall. We know that it too will die when the batteries run down and then it will all be done and the last trace of humanity will likely vanish from the planet.


The unique characters in these three works and the authors’ masterful way of communicating those characters make these characters live (and die) for use. We bind with them for a brief time and share their thoughts, dream and feelings. It becomes real for the audience and the experience is memorable. This is the kind of characterization that completely immerses the audience in the narrative and brings the characters to life.


Bishop, Elizabeth, 1946, The Fish, North and South, Houghton Mifflin.

Bradbury, Ray, 1950, There Will Come Soft Rains, The Martian Chronicles. Doubleday.

Encarta Dictionary, 2009, North America, functional part of Word 2007.

O’Brien, Tim, 1990, The Things They Carried, The Things They Carried, Houghton Miflin

Poetry Foundation,2008, Archive- , Web.

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