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William Armstrong

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The boy

Throughout the text, the boy is fueled by unyielding strength. While some may describe this attitude as optimistic, optimism is not exactly the right term—true, he is not pessimistic and never gives up, but he never acts particularly hopeful. It is difficult to attribute characteristics to the boy because he rarely speaks. As the reader, we are privy to some of his thoughts and wishes, but most of the information about the boy must be garnered through his actions. The fact that he never stops searching for his father and for Sounder points not only to undying strength, but also to a dogged determination that is characteristic of both his mother and father.

The boy is sad and lonely, and most of the time it does not appear that he has many joys in life. He works stoically, helping out at the cabin, searching diligently for his father and his dog, and learning to read. The boy rarely, if ever, complains about his plight. The way the boy accepts his situation suggests that he is patiently waiting for a break for his father to come home, or for a stroke of luck. Patience is only one of the virtues that he demonstrates, and Armstrong describes him as one who adheres to the tenets of the Bible. Perhaps this is why he is not pessimistic and is able to stay strong? With God's strength to guide him and the stories of the Bible to provide comfort, the boy's life is not as bereft as it seems. His virtue pays off in the end, as he happens upon a teacher who takes him in and accepts the task of teaching the boy to read. By the end of the book it feels as if everything has been put right for the boy, and that indeed, he has found what he was looking for, and more.

The father

The boy's father is not actually central to the plot of this book; however, his absence is a major plot detail. How the boy reacts in the wake of his father's arrest and conviction is the single, most important circumstance around which the book revolves. The removal of his father suddenly makes the man of the house who has to assume all kinds of responsibilities that he never considered before. We do not actually learn a lot about the father, except that he too is a stoic character who took the responsibility of providing for his family so seriously that he risked his freedom and life. His decision to tell his son never to visit him again in jail is our only real glimpse into his emotions: seeing the boy was too difficult for the father, and the father knew it was just as difficult for the boy. The father, always the caretaker, seeks to avoid that situation in the future, and, hence, he asks the boy not to visit him again. Like his dog, the boy's father has a strong sense of home and was resolved to get there no matter what. When the father returns, he is half-broken and half-beaten physically. There is an immediate distinction between his fate and his son's whose future has actually improved since the time the father has been away. The boy's success is the best gift and reassurance that his father did a good job.

The mother

The boy's mother is perhaps the most understated character in the entire novel. She plays a central role in the family's functioning, particularly after the father is arrested. She maintains the home domestically and financially, and she never complains about the enormous burden that suddenly landed on her. Her love for her husband is evident in her dogged faithfulness, and it is clear through her attitude that she believes he will come home. She never gets depressed and never reaches a point of feeling as if it is too much. Armstrong writes her as the silent heroine, attracting little attention but functioning in perhaps the most important role. The boy's mother is wise—she addresses concerns and situations with proverbs—and knows factual information such as that oak leaves can help to draw out poison. She has an understanding of the world that goes beyond what one can learn from an education. The single stable force in the boy's life, his mother allows him room to grow up and learn for himself while guiding him along the way. She is adamant that he live and study with the teacher he meets, and it is clear that she wants only what is best for her family, including her absent husband.


Sounder is a character, inasmuch as he is important enough to earn the title of the book, even though he, like the father, is absent throughout the majority of the text. Sounder is the animal counterpart to the boy's father: they both are taken from the family at the same time, they both return some time later, wounded, and they both die close to the other's death. Sounder is more important that just any dog, and he represents hope for the family. They all think that there is no way Sounder could have survived being shot, but he does. His defiance of the odds suggests that the boy is right in never giving up hope.

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