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Character Analysis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

MARSDEN, Charles. Friend of Professor Leeds, confidant and later husband-to-be of Nina Leeds.  He remains important throughout the twenty-five year span of the play. At first he is thirty-five, tall, thin, meticulously tailored, somewhat dreamy, "always ready to listen, eager to sympathize, to like and be liked." He is also hopelessly tied to his mother, and is devastated by her death (between Acts IV and V). He then brings his sister, Jane, to live with him and look after him. When she dies, he waits for Nina Leeds. According to Ned Darrell, he writes novels of manners which display very little insight into human behavior.

 

Charles loves Nina Leeds in an asexual way and manages to make himself an indispensable, dependable friend in all crises. He perceives Darrell as a rival for Nina's affections and suspects the truth about him and Nina: that young Gordon Evans is Darrell's child, not that of Sam Evans, her husband. He also understands that Nina has never outgrown her love for Gordon Shaw, but he is able to understand that and forgive her almost anything. At the end of the play, "dear old Charlie" has managed to survive and outlast all the other characters in the play, one way or another knowing everything and forgiving every-thing. He is about to marry Nina to offer a relationship that is really that of father and daughter; at age sixty, he is fifteen years older than she, and like her, he wishes for peace, "all passion spent." Only once does he lose his self-control, in Act VIII when Gordon Evans is trailing in his last crew race: then, momentarily, he wants Gordon to lose, feeling himself threatened by the young man's aggressive masculinity. Charles and Nina plan to return to her childhood home where they will live out their last years together. The action of the play and their lives have come full circle, and their past passions are a "strange interlude."

 

LEEDS, Nina. Daughter of Professor Leeds, fiancée of Gordon Shaw, wife of Sam Evans, lover of Edmund (Ned) Darrell, mother of Gordon Evans, and finally wife-to-be of Charles Marsden. She is twenty when the play opens and has had a nervous breakdown as the result of the death of her fiancé, Gordon Shaw, who was shot down in flames just before the 1918 armistice. She blames herself for not insisting that they consummate their relationship physically before he left for war, even if they were not married. Gordon had taken the professor's advice to heart and decided that it would not be the honorable thing to marry Nina until he returned from the war and had managed to get started in life. Nina feels herself bereft, and so she arranges to work at a hospital for war veterans. There she becomes quite promiscuous, believing that only by giving herself to all these men can she expiate her sin against Gordon. Her father is devastated by her decision, though he knows nothing of her behavior at the hospital, and dies several months after she goes to work there. Nina returns to her home to find Charles Marsden waiting to help her with her grief; but she has brought Dr. Edmund Darrell, a neurologist, with her, and also Sam Evans, a young man who hopes to marry her and who worships the ideal of Gordon Shaw.

 

As Darrell suggests, she marries Sam, only to discover from Sam's mother that there is hereditary insanity in the family and that she should not bear the child she is carrying. Nina is appalled by this discovery because she has married Sam solely for the purpose of having a child, not for love of him. Mrs. Evans begs her to make Sam happy, even suggesting that she find some healthy male to father a child for Sam, to keep him happy and to save him from his father's madness. Nina has an abortion secretly and feels little more than misery and contempt for Sam, who thinks himself incompetent because he has not impregnated her and who is in the process of losing his job.

 

When Darrell returns, Nina suggests that he be the father of her child, purely as a means of helping Sam, his old dorm-mate from college. With the utmost objectivity and scientific detachment, the two agree to this course of action, but they have reckoned without their passions. They fall hopelessly in love, and Nina thinks seriously of divorcing Sam, but Darrell will not allow this. Instead he tells Sam that he is to be a father. Later, the situation is reversed and Darrell wants Nina to go away with him, but this time she refuses, for Sam's sake. Desperately, Darrell tries to drown his sorrows in dissipation, but that does not work, and always he finds himself drawn back to Nina, either by her wish or his own weakness.

 

Throughout the play, Nina represents the history of woman, to some extent the Strindbergian destructive woman but also all aspects of woman in her relationships with men. There are six men with whom Nina is entwined and four basic relationships: her father, Gordon Shaw, Sam Evans, Ned Darrell, Charles Marsden, and Gordon Evans, her son. The relationships are those of father, lover, husband, son; Charles Marsden finally adopts the triple role of father-husband-friend as the play concludes. In a most important scene (Act VI), the pregnant Nina mentally evaluates the importance of the adult men in her life, realizing that she has need of them all: "My three men!. . .l feel their desires converge in me!. . .to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb ... and I am whole. . .they dissolve in me, their life is my life. . .I am pregnant with the three!. . .husband!...lover! .lover!. . ... and the fourth man!. . .little man ...little Gordon! ... he is mine too!. . . that makes it perfect."

 

In this way, Nina becomes a composite woman, dedicated to procreation and to wifeliness, as well as to passion. Her predatory sexuality requires her to be wife, mistress, and mother. Later, as Gordon grows, she is too possessive of her son, but ironically, because both she and Sam, her husband, share a devotion to the memory of Gordon Shaw, she is fated to lose her son to the masculine world of athletic achievement and material success, as well as to the arms of another woman. It is as a wife that Nina probably achieves the greatest success, in terms of the O'Neill view of matrimony. Like the wife in Servitude, Nina finds some happiness in submission to her husband and to the fulfillment of his wishes, but inwardly she still rebels. She is continually looking for a totally comfortable and perfect relationship, but it cannot exist for her except in this quadripartite form. As she grows older, her hold on three of the men lessens: her lover, Ned, has declined into a friend; her husband is wrapped up in the achievements of his putative son; and Gordon has likewise left Nina's ambience. Alone of all, Charles Marsden remains, and she is finally happy to marry this latent homosexual novelist in a completely asexual marriage more like the relationship of father and daughter at the beginning of the play. Now that all the turmoil of passion is over, she wishes merely "to rot in peace" because she is weary of life which is but a "strange interlude in the pyrotechnical display of God the Father."

 

Throughout the play, Nina has been seeking a belief, an explanation of the pain that life has inflicted upon her, and she believes that part of her problem of belief is that God has been perceived as a male, not a female. Had God been personified as God the Mother, then humanity would have been perceived as coming from the birth pangs of the Mother, and hence pain would have some creative value. But all she can see is that she is to some extent the plaything of something stronger than herself—her own procreative urge, which must be fulfilled, and after that, she can decline into the asexual peace of old age. Yet curiously, one must recall that, though she may appear older, the Nina of Act IX is still only forty-five. For her, life has been a constant conflict, and it is with relief that she finally turns away from everyone except the one man who expects nothing of her physically, "dear old Charlie," who will occupy her father's house and study and will put her to bed at night. Finally, she has found a place and a relationship in which she belongs.

 

LEEDS, Professor, father of Nina Leeds. He is a timid, intelligent, small, slender, gray-haired man of fifty-five. His meticulously ordered room, full of the ancient classics, and nothing more modern than Thackeray, indicates that to some extent he is in retreat from the real world of daily events. Widowed for some time, he is bossed by his daughter Nina. Professor Leeds interfered with the course of his daughter's love affair with Gordon Shaw, suggesting that they delay marriage until after the war (1914-1918). Despite Gordon's desire to marry Nina, he agreed that waiting would be the honorable thing to do, and the professor really rather hoped that he would never come back because he thought Nina could do better for herself. When Gordon is killed, Nina goes to pieces, and the professor is devastated. He dies after the first act when Nina has gone away to nurse wounded soldiers. She does not see him at all during that last year or so, though she does write. Charles Marsden was one of the professor's students and remains close to him. When her father dies, Nina realizes that in fact he had died for her when Gordon Shaw did. He typifies man as father at the beginning of the play, a role that is adopted by Marsden at the end.

 

SHAW, Gordon. Engaged to Nina Leeds and killed before the action of the play begins. Nonetheless, he is the ghost who haunts the entire play because both Nina and her husband, Sam Evans, keep his memory alive. Nina never forgets the lover who is killed shortly before the Armistice (1918) and attempts to mold her son after his pattern. The character of Gordon Shaw is probably based on that of Hobart Amory Hare Baker (1892-1918), whose career is very similar to that of Shaw. He remains to this day the legendary Princeton athletic hero by whom all later prowess is judged. He joined the American Expeditionary Force and served as pilot and squadron commander. He was killed shortly after the Armistice while testing a repaired plane and under orders to return home. He epitomized the F. Scott Fitzgerald ideal of university youth, and displayed "the spirit of manly vigor, of honor, of fair play, and the clean game." (President Hibben of Princeton, quoted in Leitch, 1978, p. 38). Interestingly, O'Neill insists snobbishly on the fact that Gordon's people were really rather ordinary and also that great college athletic heroes do not normally succeed later in life; after that brief time of adulation, everything is downhill.

 

Gordon Shaw is remembered in the play as a latter-day knight in shining armor, but his ethic is not very viable: one of athletic prowess, commitment to self-denial, honor, masculine strength, and very little introspection. Nina and Sam Evans always continue a belief in that ideal, while both Charles Marsden and Edmund Darrell rebel against it, each seeing this commitment as poisoning their relations with Nina. As a result, both Charlie and Edmund (though opposed, almost inimical characters) hope that Nina's son, Gordon Evans (the re-creation of the Gordon Shaw ideal), will lose in his last regatta crew race. This ideal is really rather adolescent and to some extent dated, and it does make some of the other characters of the play seem a trifle shallow.

 

EVANS, Gordon. The child of Nina Leeds and Edmund Darrell, though he bears the name of his putative father, Sam Evans. Nina deliberately conceives this child by Darrell so that Sam can think he is the father of a healthy baby. Nina, Sam's wife, chooses to have an abortion so that the child she is carrying will not inherit the insanity of the Evans family. Gordon is brought up to surpass the exploits of Gordon Shaw, Nina's dead fiancé, for whom he is named. Sam brings him up to follow the cult of the college athlete, and as a result, the boy draws closer to Sam and away from Nina, something that she finds difficult to endure. Gordon hates his real father, Darrell, because he has seen him kissing Nina and fears Nina's love for this other man. He breaks every gift Darrell brings him when he is a child, and the hostility persists when he becomes an adult. At one point in the final act, he strikes his own father, but such is his repentance for his dishonorable act that he doesn't understand the revelation of his parentage which Nina cries out in anger.

 

Gordon is a golden boy, the ultimately successful athlete, the best of his class, rather materialistic and lacking in introspection, but not totally insensitive. He even wishes Nina and Darrell happiness when he thinks they will marry after Sam's death. He is engaged to Madeline Arnold, age nineteen, a young woman who resembles Nina but without the neuroses. As Darrell and Nina renounce each other, he and Madeline circle overhead in their private airplane in departure. He is breaking the bond with his over possessive mother, and at the same time he is closing the circle with Gordon Shaw. As Shaw fell out of the heavens in flames in World War I, Gordon flies up; and like the other Gordons of the world, he is going to be successful.

 

EVANS, Mrs. Amos. Mother of Sam Evans. She is forty-five but looks sixty. She is a tiny woman who has once been lonely, but now there is a tension and a grimness about her. Her eyes are dark with sorrow, though there is still a trace of "sweet loving-kindness" about the mouth. She informs Nina Leeds about the hereditary insanity in Sam's family and tells her to have an abortion so that the taint will cease. Mrs. Evans had married in ignorance of this illness, and Sammy was an accident which eventually was the cause of her own husband's insanity. She has also been looking after poor, idiot Aunt Bessie for most of her married life. She sympathizes with Nina, "the daughter of my sorrow," and suggests that Nina should perhaps consider having someone else father a healthy child for Sam in order to preserve his happiness, since he wants a child so badly. She begs Nina to stay with Sam, whether she loves him or not, and make him happy: "Being happy, that's the nearest we can ever come to knowing what's good." After this revelation, the two never meet again.

 

EVANS, Sam. At the beginning of the twenty-five-year span of the play he is twenty-five years old, coltishly collegiate, an amiable duffer, looking younger than his years. He is in love with Nina Leeds, whom he had met at a college prom when she was with Gordon Shaw, the great college hero. After Gordon's death, Sam wishes to marry Nina, and the two meet through their mutual acquaintance, Edmund Darrell, Sam's college dorm-mate. Ned advises Nina, who has had a breakdown following the death of Gordon, to marry Sam, have a child, and forget the past. Nina does so, and the two of them seem to worship at the shrine of Gordon. However, Sam's mother, Mrs. Amos Evans, reveals to Nina that there is hereditary insanity in Sam's family; his father had died of it and Sam should never have been born. Mrs. Evans suggests that the pregnant Nina obtain an abortion and then arrange for someone else to father a child to keep Sammy happy and sane. Sam is desperate for a child, and as a result he is not performing well at his job, while Nina treats him with indifference bordering on hostility. She becomes pregnant deliberately by Darrell, and Sam is led to believe that the child is his. But the baby gives Sam the necessary impetus to make a complete material success of his life. He brings up his son, Gordon Evans, to re-create the image of Gordon Shaw and be everything that he himself could not be at college. He dies sometime after a stroke induced by overexcitement when his son wins his last regatta crew race after a strenuous battle. He adores Nina and is unaware of either his own weakness or Nina's adultery; he is a decent, honest, simple-minded man with uncomplicated emotions and desires, a Babbitt, perhaps, but a good-hearted person, despite his materialism. He typifies man as husband for this play.

 

DARRELL, Edmund (Ned). The lover of Nina Leeds and the father of her son, Gordon Evans. He is twenty-seven at the beginning of the twenty-five-year span of the play and is a promising neurologist working at a hospital for wounded veterans of World War I. He had been a friend of Gordon Shaw, Nina's dead fiancé, and the dorm-mate of Sam Evans. When Nina asks for employment at the hospital, he agrees, for Gordon's sake, but is appalled to discover that she is hopelessly promiscuous, having decided that only by giving herself to any of these men can she purge herself of her guilt for not having consummated her relationship with Gordon. As a means of saving her from herself, Darrell recommends marriage with Sam Evans, who worships the memory of Gordon. Darrell considers this his experiment in working with human lives or, as Nina suggests, playing "God the Father." Unfortunately, Sam comes of a family with hereditary insanity, and Nina has an abortion on the advice of Sam's mother. She does not, however, tell Sam.

 

Nina is devastated by the situation but feels she must remain with Sam. She tells Darrell of her predicament and, following Sam's mother's suggestion, asks Darrell to father her child so that Sam can be happy in thinking the child is his. In a very scientific way Darrell agrees, but then the two of them fall passionately in love. Finally, Nina becomes so desperate that she thinks of divorcing Sam, but Darrell dissuades her. He tries repeatedly to stay away from Nina, to try to forget her, but always he returns at her bidding, allowing everything, including his career, to flounder. The two do not resume physical intercourse, though there are opportunities. Darrell looks at Gordon Evans, his son who is not aware of his true parentage, and the two of them become disenchanted with each other. Gordon hates Darrell because he once saw him kissing Nina, and Darrell dislikes the fact that his son is being made into the image of the dead Gordon Shaw.

 

As he grows older, Darrell comes into a little money, which Sam manages to parlay into a comfortable fortune so that Darrell can play at biology, having long ago given up on neurology. He becomes enthusiastic about the work of his young assistant, Preston, who becomes for him a surrogate son, and finally he manages to break the tie with Nina, though he will always remember their afternoons. At times, Darrell seems desperate for happiness, and as a result he can even detest the inoffensive Sam. For Darrell, Nina is a destructive possessor, and he himself is too weak to break from her. He finally realizes that he was nothing more than a body to Nina, and that even during their lovemaking Gordon Shaw was figuratively present. He has been the ghost haunting their relationship throughout the play. This is the reason that he roots for Gordon Evans to lose his final regatta crew race, much to Sam's rage.

 

When Sam has his stroke, which leads to his death a few months later, Darrell sees his innermost wish fulfilled; but when it occurs, he knows that he no longer cares. Once Sam is dead, Ned Darrell discovers from Gordon that Sam has left a half-million dollars to Darrell's Caribbean research station. Then Gordon confesses that he had once seen Ned kissing Nina and reveals his awareness that Nina has loved Darrell more than Sam, and therefore, he expects them to marry. Darrell makes a pro forma proposal of marriage to Nina, because Gordon expects it, but asks her to refuse him. This she does, because their "ghosts" would haunt them otherwise. When Nina asks Charles Marsden if he will marry her, Darrell gives them his blessing and leaves with his memories of Nina who has in effect destroyed his life.

 

Ned Darrell is the image of man as lover throughout the play.

 

ARNOLD, Madeline. The fiancée of Gordon Evans. She is nineteen years old, dark-haired and dark-eyed, athletic, tall and healthy, reminiscent of a young Nina Leeds (Gordon's mother). Madeline is a determined young woman who is accustomed to getting what she wants, but she is a good sport when she does not and as a result is popular among both men and women. Nina is opposed to the impending marriage because she does not want to lose her son, but Sam Evans, Gordon's father, is in favor. During Gordon's final regatta crew race, Nina tries to break up their engagement by telling of the family's hereditary insanity, but she is prevented by Edmund (Ned) Darrell. Madeline is at first exasperated by Nina's behavior but admires her later for the way in which she has nursed Sam Evans until his death. Madeline does not believe that Nina could ever have been unfaithful to her husband because then she would not have remained with him. A young woman of good sense and practicality, but not much introspection—Madeline is a fit wife for Gordon Evans, who is sure to be a material success.

 

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