Gertrude Flannery is a little girl who lives in the Weeds’s neighborhood. She drifts from house to house, either making herself comfortable on other people’s porches or walking right into their homes. Those who do not know Gertrude’s family think her home life must be miserable, but her parents are actually attentive and caring. Gertrude stays away from home and wears ragged clothes as a form of rebellion. Neighbors have trouble getting rid of Gertrude because she generally ignores them when they tell her it is time to leave.
When Francis kisses Anne in his house’s foyer, he is surprised to discover that Gertrude is standing right in the hallway. Gertrude never tells anyone what she has seen, which makes the reader wonder what else the child may have seen in the neighborhood. Her character is significant for this reason: the residents of Shady Hill keep up appearances, yet Gertrude probably knows many of the residents’ secrets.
Donald Goslin is one of the Weeds’s neighbors. He plays his piano in the evenings, usually selecting “Moonlight Sonata.” He plays it at his own tempo rather than strictly following the sheet music.
Dr. Herzog is the psychiatrist whom Francis visits toward the end of the story. After seeing Francis for a week, Dr. Herzog convinces him that he (Francis) needs a distraction to serve as therapy. He suggests woodworking, which Francis seems to enjoy.
At a party, Francis recognizes the maid on duty. He recalls an incident during the war in which a French woman who has lived with a German officer is publicly humiliated by having her head shaved and then being stripped naked. He realizes that the maid is the woman he remembers. Although little is told about the maid’s character, Francis’s memories of her indicate that she is proud yet vulnerable.
Anne is the Weeds’s new babysitter. She reveals to Francis that she is unhappy because of her home life; her father is an alcoholic.
Although Francis becomes obsessed with Anne, she seems oblivious to the magnitude of his feelings. When he kisses her, she resists, but nothing else is said about her reaction. Francis learns from Clayton that he and Anne plan to marry when she finishes high school.
Mr. Nixon is one of the Weeds’s neighbors. He has a bird-feeding area in his backyard and yells at the squirrels every evening.
Miss Rainey is Francis’s secretary. She sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Herzog, three times a week. Miss Rainey is a capable worker. When she is offered a better job, she tells Francis that she is quitting.
Clayton is the son of one of the Weeds’s neighbors. His father was killed in World War II, and now Clayton and his mother live alone. He attends college, but his mother is running out of money. He anticipates not being able to complete his education.
Clayton is honest, opinionated, cynical, and self-aware. He feels that he is still growing as a person and, thus, looks for opportunities to strengthen his character.
Clayton is the only character in the story who calls the people of Shady Hill “phony.” He believes that they spend too much time perpetuating their own myth of perfection, so he is happy that he and his mother plan to leave soon. He plans to leave school, find a job in New York, and move there with his mother. He also plans to marry Anne when she finishes high school.
Francis Weed is the protagonist of the story. The reader meets him as he is aboard an airplane that is making an emergency crash landing. After he survives the landing, he is a changed man. He is more impulsive and less inhibited. He says what he thinks, indulges in fantasies about the babysitter, and acts imprudently.
Although his marriage to Julia is comfortable, Francis becomes obsessed with a new teenaged babysitter, Anne. He buys her a bracelet (but never gives it to her), imagines where he will take her when it comes time to drive her home, and impulsively kisses her. He tells himself that he is in love with her, but he also feels guilty for wanting to abandon his family to be with her. His fantasies about the girl cause him to act selfishly, as when he undermines the job search of Clayton, Anne’s fiance.
Despite his fantasy world, Francis seems committed to maintaining his life as it is. When his wife threatens to leave, he talks her out of it, and he ultimately decides to see a psychiatrist to help him deal with his feelings for Anne. Francis seems to be having trouble adjusting to the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. Although he is dissatisfied with the superficial world in which he lives, he seems to prefer it to the unknown.
Helen is the oldest child of Francis and Julia. She is an adolescent who is going through a stage in which she is unimpressed, distant, and jaded.
Henry is the older son of Francis and Julia. He and Louisa are about the same age and enjoy antagonizing each other.
Julia is Francis’s wife. She is a homemaker who feels that her husband does not fully appreciate her. Julia is very involved in the community’ s social life and is popular with the Weeds’s circle of friends. The story’s narrator comments that “her love of parties sprang from a most natural dread of chaos and loneliness.” This insight suggests that Julia is not fulfilled by her role as a wife and mother.
Julia becomes exasperated with the changes she sees in her husband after the plane accident. She feels he is becoming hostile and chides his rude behavior. Her attitude reflects how she values her social standing over understanding the ramifications of her husband’s near-death experience.
Louisa is the younger daughter of Francis and Julia. She and Henry are about the same age, so they are competitive and argue with each other.
Toby is the youngest child of Francis and Julia. He is preschool-aged and is very attached to his mother.
Mrs. Wrightson is an established member of the Shady Hill community. She is older than Francis and is very hurt when he insults her at the train station. As a result of this snub, she excludes the Weeds from her anniversary party.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, John Cheever – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.