Dellie is the wife of the sharecropper Old Jebb and mother of Seth’s sometime playmate Jebb. She works as a cook for Seth’s family. They are an African-American family who live in a cabin on the narrator’s family’s farm. On the day the story takes place, Dellie is sick in bed with an unspecified “female” illness. Young Seth is shocked by her ravaged appearance and stunned when she lashes out and slaps her son so hard that he cries.
The father’s first or last name never appears in the story, but he plays a prominent role both in the events of the day and in the elder Seth’s recollections. From the information provided, however, he seems to be a leader in the community, an affectionate father, and a fearless protector of his family. He embodies the virtues of his rural southern roots: chivalry, loyalty, resourcefulness, and restraint. In the boy’s eyes, he is everything the tramp is not, and despite the boy’s attraction to the malevolent stranger, it’s clear that he loves and respects his father. The elder narrator remembers that his father’ ‘was a tall, limber man and carried himself well. I was always proud to see him sit a horse, he was so quiet and straight, and when I stepped through the gap of the hedge that morning, the first thing that happened was, I remember, the warm feeling I always had when I saw him up there on a horse, just sitting.” He dies just a few years after the events of the story.
Sometimes called Little Jebb, the son of Dellie and Old Jebb, Jebb is about two years older than Seth. He lives with his sharecropper parents in a cabin provided by Seth’s father. On the day the story takes place, his mother viciously slaps him for making too much noise playing with Seth. In the epilogue to the story Seth explains that Jebb ‘ ‘grew up to be a mean and fiery Negro. [He] killed another Negro in a fight and got sent to the penitentiary.”
Seth’s mother, whose name is Sallie, is tough and brave. She is the one who puts limits on the young boy and tries to keep him from going outside in the cold air barefoot. The older Seth remembers his mother for her other, non-maternal qualities. When his mother confronts the strange man with the knife in his pocket, the narrator acknowledges, many women would have been afraid, “But my mother wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t a big woman, but she was clear and brisk about everything she did and looked everybody and everything right in the eye from her own blue eyes in her tanned face.” It is later revealed that she died within three years of Seth’s father’s death, “right in the middle of life.”
Old Jebb is Jebb’s father and the live-in partner of Dellie. The narrator remembers that he was an old man, “up in his seventies,” back then, “but he was strong as a bull.” Young Seth is drawn to him because he had ‘ ‘the kindest and wisest face in the world, the blunt, sad, wise face of an old animal peering tolerantly out on the goings-on of the merely human before him.”
Seth is the narrator and the main character in the actions of the story. The first and only time his name is used in the story is when his father calls out to him from the crowd looking at the flooding creek. The nine-year-old Seth is completely at home in his world and lives a child’s innocent existence, free from the constraints of time and unthreatened by death and evil. As events unfold, however, he experiences and witnesses events that begin to change the way he sees himself and his world. The older Seth understands much better what happens that day, but the fact that he needs to go back and tell the story indicates that he still has unresolved feelings and unanswered questions. The biggest mystery about Seth is what happens to him in the thirty five years between the events and the telling of the story.
The tramp—or simply, the man, or the man with a knife—is the malevolent stranger with the inappropriate city clothes who walks up the path from the woods to the back door of Seth’s family’s farmhouse. Seth notices at first glance that “Everything was wrong about what he wore,” and his menacing appearance proves to be an accurate predictor of his behavior. First, he’s a surly and poor worker. Next, he swears and spits at Seth’s father, and finally he snarls at and threatens Seth himself. Nevertheless, his exotic and singular rebelliousness is a powerful attraction for the young Seth, and apparently has remained so throughout his life, according to the narrator’s cryptic comments in the epilogue.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Robert Penn Warren, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.