Bedelia, aunt of the protagonist Lillian, has already died when the story begins, but there are flashback scenes in which the narrator describes the elderly woman with whom she lived. Intelligent, gracious, and refined in an old-fashioned way, Bedelia is well educated in the arts and well traveled. She brings out the best in people, such as the piano tuner Vladimir, whom she befriends. Whereas Lillian believes that Vladimir is crass and belligerent, Bedelia emphasizes his knowledge and interests. When Vladimir is with Bedelia, he strives to be a gentleman, and he and Bedelia enjoy each other. Bedelia is a role model for Lillian. However, Lillian does not have the confidence to aspire to her aunt’s social grace and civility. After Bedelia’s death at age ninety-one, Lillian’s life slowly disintegrates.
The psychopath Jamie hangs around Jody’s apartment and is thought to be her boyfriend. Lillian first meets Jamie when she goes to Jody’s apartment to make sure Jody’s stove is turned off. He startles Lillian, coming upon her quietly without announcing himself. He invites her to sit down and talk to him, but Lillian is reluctant. While she stands there, however, she watches Jamie use a butter knife to kill two cockroaches. Jamie is a morose figure, often seen standing in the rain. He is, in fact, the so-called “rain man,” who has murdered two women in Lillian’s neighborhood and mutilated their bodies.
Jody lives in the apartment over Lillian’s. She is young, outgoing, and unaware of how much she disturbs Lillian with all her noise. Jody’s apartment is a mess, which Lillian notes when she enters it to check on the stove. But in the midst of the mess, Lillian sees books that suggest Jody is well educated. Jody, who has one or more sexual partners visit her at night, explores yoga and classical literature. Jody also appears to have a relationship with Jamie, who hangs around her apartment even when she is not there.
Lillian, the protagonist, is a plain middle-aged woman, now widowed. However, she feels like a spinster. Vladimir tells her she is too polite, an attribute that she denies. She avoids confrontation, a habit that she describes as being civilized. She misses Aunt Bedelia but denies that her aunt protected her. Vladimir suggests that Lillian get married in order to have in a new husband the protection that Bedelia once provided. Lillian suspects that Vladimir is attracted to her and is often frightened by him. She is actually frightened by a lot of things and has trouble sleeping because of her fear as well as the noise from her upstairs neighbor Jody. Lillian has a certain innocence or naivety. Her instincts, possibly dulled by her lack of self-confidence, turn her in the wrong directions. She stores up her anger, directing it toward unsuspecting people, such as her wanting to slap a stranger in a bus line for stepping on her toes, when in fact she is angry at Jody for all the noise she makes.
Jamie Vladimir, a White Russian who fled war-torn Prague with his parents in 1917 and eventually immigrated to the United States, is educated in the classics and plays the piano. He works as a piano tuner, and that is how he meets Bedelia. She owns a piano and shares her knowledge with him whenever he appears in her apartment.
Vladimir is probably the most outwardly peculiar of the eccentric characters that fill this short story. He is physically unkempt, can be vulgar in his actions and speech, and has himself committed to a mental institution from time to time. But at the level of his heart, he is all love. He is fascinated with Aunt Bedelia because of her charm and cultivation and because she connects with him in positive ways. When she dies, he continues to go to the apartment to mourn her and on her behalf to watch out for her niece. Vladimir suggests that Lillian get married after Aunt Bedelia dies, but he takes himself out of the running, stating that he does not like women. At one point, Vladimir even suggests that he has found a man for Lillian to marry, but nothing comes of this. Vladimir spends the latter part of this story worrying about Lillian. It is not clear if he watches over her for her own sake or out of respect for his feelings for Aunt Bedelia. But at night, he sits in his car and watches Lillian’s apartment. He wants to protect her from the murderer who lurks in the neighborhood. However, when he tries to warn Lillian of the danger, he becomes so irrational that Lillian fears Vladimir more than she fears the unknown murderer. Vladimir’s warnings and his attempts to save Lillian are in vain, and in his last appearance in the story, he knocks on the door, which Lillian refuses to answer.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Ella Leffland, Published by Gale Group, 2006