Author: George Crabbe
First published: 1810
Locale: A seaside community
Peter Grimes, the best-known character, largely because of the opera Peter Grimes (1945), written by Benjamin Britten Evil-tempered and willful, the young Grimes first defies and then abuses his kindly father, a fisherman. Although he repents briefly after his father's death, Grimes is soon his old self, drinking for amusement and fishing and stealing to support himself. A sadist by nature, Grimes takes a poor boy as an apprentice. For his own pleasure, Grimes beats him, starves him, and eventually causes his death. After two other boys in Grimes's care also die, the parish authorities refuse to place others with him. Shunned by his neighbors and haunted by the ghosts of his father and the three dead apprentices, Grimes dies alone. In his opera, Britten changed the monster of this work to an innocent man, misunderstood and slandered by his neighbors.
Abel Keene, a decent, respectable man. Tiring of a teacher's hectic life, Keene finds an ideal job as bookkeeper for a merchant. Because he yearns for companionship and acceptance, he is easily persuaded to join the merchant's son and his friends in their carousals. Flattered by the attention, Keene cannot see that he is merely the butt of their jokes. When the merchant dies, Keene loses both his job and his supposed friends. In despair, he consults Calvinistic preachers, but they will not guarantee him God's forgiveness, and Keene hangs himself.
Ellen Orford, a trusting, devout woman who is a lifelong victim of men and of society. As a child, she endures her step-father's cruelty. As a young woman, she gives her heart to a rich young man, but he marries someone of his own class, leaving Ellen with a retarded child. Ellen marries a tradesman, and they have five sons; however, after being converted to a fanatical sect, he comes to loathe Ellen and her daughter, the fruit of sin. After he kills himself, the authorities take away four of Ellen's sons, leaving her with only one sickly boy and the girl. All four boys die, one of them by hanging, and the daughter dies in childbirth, having been seduced by the brother at home. In teaching, Ellen finds an outlet for her loving nature; however, when she goes blind, she is deprived of her position. Because she has never lost her faith in God, she dies in peace and in the expectation of a better life.
Jachin, a parish clerk, a serious, responsible man. Although he can reject alcohol and sex, Jachin falls to greed and the fear of poverty. When his fees decline, Jachin begins giving alms to himself instead of to the poor for whom they are intended. Exposed and dismissed from his job, he feels the contempt of his neighbors and his own bitter consciousness of having sinned. Repenting, he dies alone.
Sir Denys Brand, a proud, wealthy man whose life is based on pretense. Praising temperance, he eats sparingly; actually, he is motivated by stinginess. Similarly, he is charitable only when he will receive some public acknowledgment; he is incapable of secret kindnesses. Because he is essentially un-feeling, he assumes that members of the lower classes cannot feel pain, and he gives refuge in the almshouse only to those who were once members of his own class.
Blaney, a spendthrift and a playboy. During his lifetime, Blaney loses three fortunes: his inheritance from his father, wealth acquired through marriage, and finally a bequest from a distant relative. Initially, Blaney indulges in dissolute pleasures that injure no one but himself, but he becomes so jaded that he must effect the ruin of others. Appointed by Brand to the almshouse, he spends his final years fondly remembering his dissipated past.
Clelia, another inhabitant of the almshouse. A coquette, dedicated to winning the admiration of men, the young Clelia falls easily to a practiced seducer. No longer desirable as a wife, she becomes the mistress of one of her former suitors, an attorney. Later, she is kept by an innkeeper. When he goes bankrupt, Clelia tries to make a living, but without success. Now old, vulgar, and unattractive, she spends her time with Blaney, exaggerating her past triumphs.
Frederick Thompson, a merchant's son. Intelligent but lazy, and badly spoiled by his mother, he will not do what is required of him at college, in an office, on a ship where he has been appointed a midshipman, or even in traveling companies of players. Although he insists that his one desire is to be free, Thompson always slinks back to his parents when he is ill or when he needs money. After being kicked out of the house of prostitution where he is working, Thompson tries to go home again, but when he stops to rest, he dies.