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A second lieutenant in the Canadian field artillery from 1916-1917 (he enlisted when he was nineteen). He is a compassionate, handsome fellow who suffers the loss of his sister, Rowena, who died from a fall onto cement ground in the barn. This caused Robert great guilt for his sister's death. From this point, Robert has violent streaks and leads an internal war with himself while also trying to cope with the war going on in the world. After Rowena's death, Robert became distant from his mother and much closer to his father, who continued to support and encourage him throughout his experience in the war. Robert's personality is serious, practical, determined, and observant of things that other people cannot see. His observations also allow him to react quickly to the situations he encounters in this novel. Even though Robert is determined, he was not a natural killer; this weakness was seen in his inability to kill the injured horse or Rowena's rabbits. Robert strove to learn from Eugene Taffler, who Robert hoped could help teach him to kill by example. After all the terrible things Robert witnesses, he gradually descends into madness, and goes AWOL. He kills two fellow officers in an attempt to save hundreds of horses from slaughter.
Rowena is Robert's older sister, whom Robert felt a connection to from a very early age. She was hydrocephalic, meaning she was born with water in the brain. This caused her to have an adult sized head but a body of a ten-year-old, and made her unable to walk. Robert acted as her guardian for most of his life. She was 25 years old when she fell out of her wheel chair in their barn and shortly after, passed away. Robert took it as his duty to protect her. When she fell out of her chair, Robert was in his room masturbating. Thus, he is guilty throughout the novel for inadvertently causing her death. She remains in Robert's heart and mind throughout the novel and is constantly referenced. Rowena also had ten rabbits that she looked after and kept as pets while she was alive that Mrs. Ross insisted be killed, against Robert's wishes, shortly after Rowena's death.
Commonly referred to as Mr. Ross in the novel, who is the father of Robert Ross. He was the more lenient parent in the family and loved every member enough to encourage Robert to go for what he wants, but be lenient towards Rowena's death and the accusations that were made. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ross became helpless after Rowena's death and Robert's enlisting in the army.
Margaret Elizabeth Ross
Mrs. Ross is Robert's mother who has issues with closeness to people that she truly loves. Later on it is revealed in the novel that her brother died in a completely random trolley accident and ever since then she realized how hopeless it was to keep people alive. This way of being "distant" from the ones she loves is displayed early on in the novel when she joins Robert in the bathroom during his bath. She tells him that "people in the world are all born alone and at the hands of strangers" and tells him that she could do nothing to keep him alive from the moment he was cut away from her. This statement makes it seem as though she doesn't care about Robert going off to the army because she can't keep him alive anyways. But in the end it is ironic in how although she was always "distant" from him, while he experiences the perils of War overseas, she would go out in the rain, wind, and storm to experience the types of conditions he was experiencing. This truly displays the way that their mother/son bond is always existent and no matter what she says can never be broken. Later on when Robert is labelled as "missing in action" by the army, Mrs. Ross goes blind almost as though without her son in the world her light has gone out and there is nothing left to see.
Marian Turner is a young nurse during the war. She cares for Robert when he is injured late in the novel, but the reader is introduced to her earlier. Via transcripts of interviews, an 80-year old Marian gives accounts of what Robert was like as a young man, and of life during the war.
Lady Juliet d'Orsey
Juliet d'Orsey gives an account of Robert, whom she knew at the age of twelve and for whom she had romantic feelings. She is Barbara d'Orsey's younger sister who saw too much and acted too maturely for her age. Interestingly, she seems to be the only character who understands the delicate homoerotic undertones in male friendships without being confused or disturbed by them.
This lady is Juliet's older sister, who became Robert's lover at a point in the novel. She was uncaring and moved easily from one man to another. She admired athletes and heroes, and constantly frustrated delicate homoerotic relationships without understanding her own destructiveness.
This man was a war hero who was often accompanied by a dog and a horse. He later loses his arms. After that occurrence he attempts suicide, by rubbing his stubs against the wall, but is thwarted by Lady Juliet d'Orsey. From the very beginning when he is first introduced he plays the game of hitting bottles off of posts with stones, perfect accuracy and strength. This reflects Taffler's reputation in the war as soldier known for killing as though it were some kind of game. Taffler's reputation and self-image are linked closely with his arms. First as he's introduced using them to hit bottles with stones, and even later when he helps Robert toss Harris' ashes into the river. When Taffler loses his arms he no longer wants to live because his arms were so much a part of him and his identity that without them he doesn't have the will to live. Taffler is a complex character because although when introduced, Robert makes Taffler his model of masculinity, but later discovers him having (paying for) gay sex. Nevertheless, Taffler goes on to have a seemingly normal heterosexual relationship with Barbara d'Orsey.
Robert meets Harris in the ship's infirmary. Harris' condition grows progressively worse while in England and eventually dies before being sent off to France. While under Robert's care at a hospital, Harris talks at great length of his love of the sea. Robert describes Harris as someone he loved deeply.
- Plot overview
- Influences and style
- Introduction by Guy Vanderhaeghe
- Plot summary
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