Jack Barsness and his wife Wylla visit the DeWeeses on the evening of the same day that the narrator, Chris, and the Sutherlands arrive. The narrator seems to recall that Barsness is a writer and English instructor at the University (where Phaedrus taught). An unnamed sculptor arrives at the DeWeeses after the Barsnesses appear.
Wylla Barsness is the wife of English instructor Jack Barsness. The couple visits the DeWeeses the evening of the arrival of the narrator, Chris, and the Sutherlands.
Chris is the eleven-year-old son of the narrator. During the motorcycle trip, Chris is at times enthusiastic and happy, at other times angry; the narrator presumes these moods correspond with Chris’s interpretations of and responses to his own feelings. Chris periodically complains of stomach pains, which the narrator informs the Sutherlands have no physical source but have been diagnosed as a possible symptom of mental illness. On a number of occasions throughout the journey, Chris tells his father of things his father said in his sleep and of conversations the narrator cannot recall the next day. The narrator suspects that Chris prefers his old personality of Phaedrus to his current self and begins to understand that Phaedrus is reemerging and trying to talk to Chris. At the novel’s end, the narrator explains his former existence as one of insanity and tells Chris that the insanity is returning. He also tells Chris that he might have a similar mental illness. The narrator suggests that Chris return home alone. At this suggestion and upon hearing his father’s description of his past life as ‘‘insane,’’ Chris experiences a breakdown of sorts, collapsing in the road. As the narrator tries to coax him back to reality, Phaedrus emerges and speaks to Chris directly, telling him that they can at last be together. Chris’s response is overwhelmingly joyful. When Chris tells Phaedrus that for all these years, he thought Phaedrus did not want to see him, Phaedrus responds that he had to do what he was told and that he was not allowed to return to his family. The narrator begins now to understand the problems Chris has had for so many years and comprehends the terror he has seen in Chris’s eyes.
Phaedrus now insists that he was not insane. Chris replies, ‘‘I knew it.’’ In the final chapter, Chris and his father ride with their helmets off, and Chris stands behind his father to see over his head and shoulders, explaining his new perspective, saying that everything is now different. Not only has his perspective on the motorcycle changed, but his perspective on his father has as well.
Gennie DeWeese and her husband host the narrator, Chris, and the Sutherlands at their Bozeman, Montana, home. The narrator confides to the DeWeeses that he is considering writing a series of essays on the philosophy of the ancient Greek rhetoricians that Plato ‘‘vilified.’’ He describes his notion of the ‘‘Church of Reason’’ (the analytic reasoning taught at the University, which is mistakenly believed to encompass the whole of human understanding) to the DeWeeses. Gennie encourages the narrator in his plan to write the essays and tells him he should not worry about ‘‘trying to get it perfect.’’
DeWeese is an abstract impressionist painter and an instructor of fine art at the University in Bozeman, Montana, where Phaedrus taught. The narrator, Chris, and the Sutherlands spend several nights at his house. DeWeese knew the narrator only when the narrator was in his Phaedrus phase, and the narrator is anxious about meeting DeWeese again, because he realizes that DeWeese will see him as his former personality. The narrator recalls that Phaedrus regarded DeWeese asa man with a wealth of untapped knowledge and understanding. When the narrator, Chris, and the Sutherlands arrive at the DeWeese home, DeWeese introduces them to his other guests, an unnamed art instructor and his wife.
The narrator of the novel is Chris’s father. Years prior to the motorcycle trip, the narrator was a college instructor of rhetoric. He was a gifted child with a high IQ who entered college at the age of fifteen and was expelled two years later. He served in the army, in Korea, and returned to complete his education. After he began teaching in Bozeman, Montana, he pondered the philosophical questions he was so plagued by in his earlier years. Gradually he became obsessed with the metaphysical notion of Quality and its role as an organizing principle in the universe. Unable to find a way to incorporate his philosophy into his everyday life, he became increasingly withdrawn and isolated, a stranger to his family and friends. He was committed to a mental institution, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and treated with electro-shock therapy. When he returned to society, he had what his doctors described as a new and different personality. The narrator comes to view his old self as another identity entirely and names him Phaedrus, after a character in one of the Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogues. The new personality—the narrator—is not identified by name. His son calls him Dad, and the other characters in the book never refer to him by name. References to emptiness and loneliness in the novel suggest that he feels cut off, isolated from his true self. He seems to want to put Phaedrus behind him for good, to ‘‘bury’’ him, yet he seems to be running toward Phaedrus at the same time, returning to his college office and classroom and following his route across the country and through the mountains. Throughout the novel, the narrator accesses more and more of the remnants of Phaedrus’s thought and follows the philosophical paths created by Phaedrus to new directions that Phaedrus had not pursued. When the narrator understands at last, after a series of dreams, that Phaedrus is reemerging, he attempts to prepare Chris. He draws out the journey in order to spend more time with Chris and then tells his son some of the truth about his past, saying that he wants to send Chris home alone. Chris is unable to bear this news. The breakdown that follows draws Phaedrus out and reunites father and son. In the final chapter of the book, the narrator/Phaedrus concludes his narration with a declaration of victory. ‘‘We’ve won it,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s going to get better now.’’
Sarah is a woman the narrator recalls after he enters his old office at the college in Bozeman, Montana. Her office was adjacent to Phaedrus’s, and it was her statement to him, ‘‘I hope you are teaching Quality to your students,’’ that set Phaedrus on his obsessive quest for an understanding of Quality.
John Sutherland and his wife, Sylvia, are friends of the narrator. They accompany the narrator and his son Chris on the motorcycle trip fromMinnesota to Montana. While the couple provides amiable company for the narrator throughout much of the journey, the narrator also identifies areas in which his and John’s approaches to motorcycles, and to life, are in opposition to one another. Due to this difference, John is used by the narrator as an example of the romantic, intuitive, anti-technological mindset as opposed to the classic, reasoning, technological one. Despite the deep differences in the philosophies of John and the narrator, the narrator observes that John is worth the effort of reasoning with and of trying to understand. The narrator also informs the reader that he and the Sutherlands have been on a number of motorcycle trips together in the past and that John is a musician.
Sylvia Sutherland and her husband John are friends of the narrator who travel with him for some of the journey. She is depicted as contemplative, amiable, and pleasant, and in complete agreement with her husband in terms of their romantic approach to life, an approach that is disdainful of technology, according to the narrator. Sylvia expresses both concern about Chris and his stomach pains and occasional annoyance with Chris’s behavior.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Robert M. Pirsig, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.