The protagonist of the story, who is referred to only as "the boy." The story focuses on the boy's search for Sounder and his father, both of whom he loses on the same night. The boy comes of age as the novel progresses, especially in his helping raise his siblings and filling the void left behind by his father. In addition to his constant search for his father and Sounder, the boy learns to read and finally moves out of the cabin in pursuit of an education.
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The father is an absent character for the most part, since he is in jail for much of the text. Before his arrest and conviction, though, he plays a typical paternal role, supporting his family by hunting. Providing for the family becomes increasingly difficult, and it is when his responsibility as a provider reaches near impossibility that he steals to feed his family, triggering the string of events that eventually lead to his imprisonment. He is stoic, quiet, and expresses little emotion even when his son visits him in jail. At the end, he is injured much like Sounder, significantly beaten, and broken by his stint as a convict.
While the boy's mother is an understood key character in the text—taking care of the entire family in her husband's absence—her role is significantly downplayed. She remains strong after her husband's arrest, working to support her family and to remain optimistic despite the tragic events that have befallen her family. She is very sensitive to the boy and discourages him from searching for his father and Sounder, though supporting him when he does. She does not complain about the circumstances and increased difficulty of their situation and is the rock that holds the family together when her husband is put in jail.
Sounder, in many ways, is living a life parallel to the boy's father. They are taken from the family at the same time, and they both eventually find their way back after having sustained serious injury. Before being shot, Sounder is the most vocal member of the entire family, announcing his presence with a gigantic bark and howl that rings across the valley. Sounder represents strength and loyalty, much like the boy's father does.
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The teacher is the only person outside of the boy's family who treats him with kindness. In a sense, the teacher fills the void the boy's father left behind, but he also, more importantly, provides the boy with a future and the possibility for improvement. The teacher seems to implicitly understand the boy's plight, and the teacher knows that books bring the boy pleasure. It is through reading that the teacher and the boy grow to be friends. The boy's seemingly random run in with the teacher is an extremely lucky circumstance or else is representative of divine intervention.
The jail guard is needlessly evil and personifies many of the obstacles that the boy and the entire family face. He immediately picks on the boy, not showing compassion or even decency. It seems as if the guard delights in frightening the boy, as he does when he destroys the cake the boy has brought for his father. The jail guard illustrates how the boy can feel as if the rest of the world is against him and exemplifies how hard it is to achieve improvement in life with such authority pitted against him.