The protagonist of the novel. She is a spunky woman who has always fought her way through the world and stood up for herself. She represents courage, fortitude, and determination. From the very beginning of the novel to the very end, Jane attempts to make herself as emotionally and physically free as possible. She is a physically strong woman who becomes a community leader because of her strength, insight, and character.
Jane Pittman's adopted son. Ned represents insight, strength, and youth. He is a bright young man who desires change in the society and boldly makes an effort to help his people by building a school. He is well aware that he might be killed for his actions, as he is, but he insists on doing it anyhow. His bravery makes him a savior within his community.
Jane's husband. Joe is kind, likable, and tough. His toughness gave him the courage to leave Colonel Dye's plantation after finding another job. Joe's desire to break horses shows his forceful personality and yearning for true manhood. Joe's excellence at his work indicates his status as a truly strong man. Unfortunately, Joe's desire to constantly demonstrate his manhood will lead to his death as he refuses to retire even though he is aging. Joe's death when trying to capture the black stallion can be seen as his final attempt to claim the masculinity that whites had long denied him.
The Master of the Samson Plantation and the father of Tee Bob. Robert Samson represents the old southern social order. He governs his plantation almost as men did during slavery. He seduces a black woman and fathers a child, Timmy, but he refuses to accept this son as his own because he is black. Timmy lives on the plantation and resembles him more than Samson's white son, but for Samson the color barrier between them is larger than their blood connection. Samson's inability to see beyond the old southern order leads to his rejection of Timmy and the death of his other son, Tee Bob. Because of his archaic beliefs, his legacy is ruined.
The wife and mistress of the Samson plantation. Miss Amma Dean maintains the racial social order on the plantation. Her dislike of Robert Samson's black son Timmy most obviously indicates how she expects the traditional decorum of blacks. Still, her harsh treatment of Timmy also relates to her dismay at her husband's infidelity. Her affection for her own son and her extreme grief at his suicide also makes her a sympathetic character. Gaines makes Miss Amma Dean a sympathetic character who demonstrates the way that the strict patriarchy pushed women in the old southern realm aside.
An old Cajun man who fishes near Jane's cabin each day and who shoots Ned Douglass. Initially Cluveau is a friendly character, even though he speaks frequently about killing people. He and Jane are even friends. Cluveau's willingness to shoot Ned shows him as a coward. Cluveau is a poor white Cajun who will follow the orders of the higher-ranking whites in order to get their acceptance. After Cluveau believes that Jane has cursed him, his status as a weak coward becomes more obvious since he fears going to hell so much that he beats his innocent daughter. Cluveau is so afraid of death that he screams for days before it comes. This cowardice toward the end of his life contrasts strongly with the bravery showed by Ned Douglass, the man he shot.
The son of Robert Samson, the owner of the Sampson Plantation. Tee Bob is a tragic figure who kills himself during the book because he cannot accept the social mores of the South. Tee Bob's first disappointment with the Southern order comes when his father forces his half-brother, Timmy, off the plantation. Tee Bob cannot understand why Timmy has to leave because the white overseer beat him. Tee Bob's later love for Mary Agnes again steps outside of the rules proscribed by their culture. No one, not even Mary Agnes, supports Tee Bob's love of her. When she turns him down, he sees that the world is too harsh for him, and he kills himself. Tee Bob's love for his brother and for Mary Agnes is pure, and he cannot understand why anything can be wrong with them. Tee Bob in many ways still maintains a sense of racial superiority because he is white, but the kind nature of his heart makes him willing to step outside the rules. And it is his willingness that leads to his dismay and suicide.
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Timmy is the unrecognized son of Robert Samson. Timmy looks and acts just like Robert Samson, but because Timmy is the son of a black woman he cannot claim Robert Samson's name. Timmy's knowledge of who is father is makes him slightly more obstinate than other blacks. Timmy is not entirely a likeable character because he is so hardheaded and mischievous, but he is a sympathetic one. His father exiles him from the plantation eventually because Timmy's attitude is not becoming of a black man. Timmy yearns to be the man that he is, but despite his heritage, his black race still requires that he cower in a white man's world. Timmy's presence is a testament to the widespread existence of black children of white men and the longtime rejection of them by their fathers both during and after slavery.
The Creole schoolteacher that comes to live on the Samson plantation and with whom Tee Bob falls in love. Mary Agnes came to the plantation in an effort to make amends for her family's slaveholding past. Most of the plantation, however, believes her to be slightly uppity, because of her background. Her desire to be with dark skinned people is equally as racist as her Creole family's desire to only be with whites. Mary Agnes is somewhat of a coquette, as she continues to befriend Tee Bob but naïvely assumes that nothing will come of it. She never considered the relationship between them serious. Her attitude, to a great extent, leads to his death.
A good friend of the Samsons who is also Tee Bob's godfather, or Parrain. Jules Raynard is a true gentleman who refuses to let violence against Mary Agnes follow Tee Bob's death. Raynard's wisdom leads to Mary Agnes's flight and his speech about how all of them killed Tee Bob, especially by supporting the culture that wore him down. Jules Raynard is an exceptional white man who seeks understanding in a time of prejudice and segregation.
A boy born in the plantation whom everyone believes is going to be the "one". Jimmy Aaron is a messiah-like figure who will return to help mobilize the community toward action. The elders on the plantation want Jimmy to become a religious leader, but because of the changes in Civil Rights he becomes more interested in politics. Jimmy Aaron's commitment and the final sacrifice of his life truly saves the other people from the fear that has governed them all their life.
Tee Bob's best friend, whom he met at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Jimmy Caya is not from the high landowning class like the Samsons, and Jules Raynard looks down on him for that reason. Jimmy Caya is young, like Tee Bob, but Jimmy Caya maintains the classic southern ideas on race. Any meaningful relationship between Tee Bob and a black woman is unthinkable in his eyes, as it is for most white men. After he learns of Tee Bob's death, he responds in the classic southern white way: he wants to blame the girl that Tee Bob loved and have her killed. He serves as a contrast to Tee Bob, who was willing to stretch the confining social limitations that society placed upon him. Caya's character articulates the racist status quo, while simultaneously demonstrating the classicism within the white southern sphere.
The man who reclaims the plantation where Jane first lived after slavery. Colonel Dye fought with the Confederate Army and represents the old southern landowning order. Colonel Dye supports restrictions and possibly violence against his blacks if necessary, such as when he sent the Ku Klux Klan to get Ned. He also is slightly dishonest in the way he tries to keep Joe on the plantation by saying that Joe owes him money and by adding interest after Joe gets the cash.
A Creole "hoodoo" woman whom Jane consults. Madame Gautier moved to a country town from New Orleans because of the competition in the city. Madame Gautier speaks with a funny accent in order to affect a spiritual tone. In many ways, she is a comedic figure because her affectations suggest that she is just a plain black woman dressed up and acting like a sorceress for financial gain.
The man who originally owns and runs the plantation on which Jane Pittman stays after slavery. He is a Republican who is willing to run the plantation with relative fairness for all the blacks. He employs a black schoolteacher and pays everyone fairly. Mr. Bone is a relatively good white man who suggests what the south could have become if the Republicans had stayed in control.
A poor white man who takes Jane and Ned to his house when they are fleeing slavery. His wife has gone crazy during the war, and he has little to share with them, but he does so anyway and takes them to the safe location of Mr. Bone's plantation. He represents kindness in the face of so much evil. Like his biblical namesake, he is a man who has seemingly endured much but who still maintains a sense of goodness and Godliness by being charitable.
Ned's mother and the slave woman who leads the freedmen as they leave slavery. Big Laura is one of many physically and emotionally strong black women who dominate the novel.
A slow witted woman at the Samson plantation who goes crazy after trying to win a race in the fields. Black Harriet's ensuing insanity and slow wittedness suggest the harshness of the southern order upon the psychology of the people within it.
The older black woman who works in the Big House at the ranch where Joe goes to break horses. Molly has become completely indoctrinated into slavery such that she cannot envision life without it. After she feels forced to leave the house, she dies soon after.
Jimmy Aaron's great aunt. She raises him and represents one of the strong older black women who remain on the plantation.
Another older black woman on the Samson plantation. She offers to drive the other protestors in her car.
A woman who lives with Jane Pittman and helps to take care of her. She is one of the strong older black women in the book.
A older black man on the Samson plantation who is supposed to drive Miss Jane to town on the day of the protest at the courthouse. Brady is too scared to do so, however. His fear is representative of the fear felt by most of the black people in the area because of years of abuse and control by the whites. Because Brady is an older black man, his inability to stand up for that in which he believes also suggests the way in which the southern order emasculated black men into inaction.
A woman on the plantation who takes care of Mary Agnes after she thinks Mary Agnes was ravished.
The local Sheriff in town. He is a classic white southern sheriff who seems totally indifferent to justice in the wake of Tee Bob's death. He supports Jules Raynard when Raynard begs for peace, but it seems just as likely that he would look away if the Samson family proceeded with violence.
One of the teenage boys who lives on the Samson plantation at the end of the book.
The white girl to whom Tee Bob Samson is engaged.
The white Union soldier who renames Jane.