Dana is the narrator and heroine of the novel. A young black woman writer living in the end of the twentieth century, she finds herself plunged into the antebellum South of the nineteenth century, an alien world in which she must struggle to establish an identity and to maintain her freedom. Dana must also battle her conscience. Only if Rufus, her forebear, survives will she herself live, so she must constantly save him. At the same time, she wonders if she is morally bound to let him die, thereby helping dozens of slaves. Further complicating matters are her feelings of genuine affection for Rufus. She likes him, despite his cruelty to her and her friends. Each time Dana saves Rufus’s life, he strips her of another piece of her dignity, which forces her to think about her own limits. By the end of the novel, she discovers that she is willing to kill to defend herself against rape.
Dana claims that her marriage to Kevin is sound, and that as a couple they have not been harmed by their travels to the South. Still, while they are there and when she talks to him about her experiences there, she finds that a wall springs up between them. Kevin cannot understand everything Dana tries to tell him about her life in the South as a slave, but Dana accepts his limited understanding. Although she knows that he is an imperfect husband and person, she is committed to him as the man she has chosen to live her life with. Dana’s identity as a writer is just as important to her as her identity as a wife. She finds that while there are things she can’t share with Kevin, there is nothing she can’t write about.
Kevin is a progressive, liberal, middle-aged white man who defies convention and the disapproval of his family to marry the black woman he loves. Slavery appalls him. He fights for his ideals in the South by helping slaves escape, even though getting caught might cost him his life. He tries to support Dana and help her contend with the difficulties she encounters in the South. However, Kevin is an imperfect man. He does not see that he tends to dominate Dana and often disregards her wishes. He is jealous of Rufus, he tries to force Dana to become his secretary, and he lashes out at her when he has a hard time fitting in back at home. Kevin also has a blind spot where the slaves on the Weylin plantation are concerned. He does not understand that even the most placid, least violent forms of slavery are shocking and degrading. He thinks about the big picture and as a result wants to affect all of history, rather than struggle to improve the lives of those around him. He does not see many of the slaves as Dana sees them: as individuals with their own histories and lives.
Rufus wants to be a good man, but he is not willing to do the necessary hard work. While his impulses are praiseworthy, his behavior is consistently atrocious. Rufus often asks others to do his dirty work for him in order to insulate himself from the violence of his actions. Likewise, he understands that rape is a horrifying act, but instead of stopping himself from raping women, he assuages his guilt by forcing his victims to fake enthusiasm. He sees the pain he inflicts, but rather than changing his behavior, he continues to do harm and then expresses genuine regret after the damage has been done. When he is getting his way, Rufus can be a kind and gentle man. But despite his occasional flashes of warmth and his tenuous understanding of morality, Rufus is, in the end, a brutal man. He thinks nothing of beating and continually raping women, selling men, and breaking up families. He is selfish and brutal, and his selfishness and brutality only worsen as he gets older.
Alice doesn’t want to accept her life as Rufus’s sex slave. She understands what Rufus has done to her, and she longs to hate him. Against her will, however, she finds herself growing used to him, and even becoming his partner. She hates herself for her failure to live in a perpetual state of rage. Alice is Dana’s foil; she is sometimes vicious to Dana simply because she needs a handy outlet for her anger. At the same time, Alice is Dana’s twin. She shows us what Dana’s life might have been like had Dana been born into the world she sometimes visits.