The Morning Watch Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1951

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Good Friday, 1924

Locale: An Episcopalian boys’ school in Tennessee

Characters DiscussedRichard

Richard, Morning Watch, Thean aspiring “saint” who suffers from the contradictions that plague many adolescents his age. He is so impressed with the holiness of the Lenten season that he vows to do as much for Jesus as Jesus did for him; his failure to measure up to Christ’s example causes him to feel deeply ashamed. Obsessed with the desire to demonstrate his piety, Richard punishes himself and almost drowns, only to suffer from feelings of false pride afterward. Despite his overpowering desire to be reverent, Richard cannot keep his mind from wandering during the service. He is also torn by his need to impress his friends, whose good opinion he seems to value almost as much as God’s. Feeling frustrated in his attempts to be humble without feeling proud of it, Richard leaves the church and arrives at a real sense of his own capacity for evil in the woods, where he participates in the senseless slaughter of a snake.

Richard’s mother

Richard’s mother, who is loving but oppressive. Because she is rearing Richard by herself, she encourages him to play with other boys and inadvertently causes him to feel abandoned. Her insistence that Richard learn God’s will by submitting is largely responsible for Richard’s poor self-image. His nagging feeling that vanity is mixed up in his piety also is a product of his mother’s influence. Because Richard is torn between feelings of love and hatred for her, she is, for the most part, ineffective as a mother.

Willard Rivenburg

Willard Rivenburg, the school’s leading athlete and the idol of the younger boys. Because of his advanced physical maturity, he looks out of place and even slightly irreverent when participating in the Mass with the rest of the boys. Willard’s muscularity makes Richard uneasy about his own lack of physical development. Richard is also hurt by the fact that this “superhuman” young man is unimpressed by his defense of Hobe Gillum in church.

Father Fish

Father Fish, Richard’s favorite teacher. He often invites Richard over to his cottage for cookies and cocoa. Richard trusts the man and takes his advice because of his wisdom and kindness. Acting almost as a surrogate father, Father Fish relieves much of Richard’s guilt.

Claude Gray

Claude Gray, a fanatically religious and somewhat insolent boy. His “girlish” voice and demonstrative piety arouse feelings of pity and guilt in Richard, who struggles with the question of Claude’s sincerity when he lays violets at the feet of the Virgin. Richard’s final impression of Claude is that of an impudent, effeminate boy who fingers his beads in church.

Hobe Gillum

Hobe Gillum and

Jimmy Toole

Jimmy Toole, Richard’s mischievous companions, both twelve years old. They enjoy drawing attention to themselves by violating the rules, as Hobe does by cussing in church. Of the two boys, Hobe has the more volatile nature; it emerges in the beginning of the novel when he threatens the boy who woke him by throwing a shoe. These rascals tend to bring out the worst in Richard. To keep from being ostracized by them, Richard joins them in beating the snake and is caught up in their sadistic glee.

George Fitzgerald

George Fitzgerald and

Lee Allen

Lee Allen, prefects destined to become priests. Being the oldest boys, they are placed in positions of authority, and they carry out their duties with a grave demeanor and a sense of the solemnity of the occasion. They are also strict disciplinarians who threaten to report Hobe Gillum for swearing in church. Richard’s fear of these boys compels him to hide from them when he sneaks out of the service. Ironically, Lee and George are just as worried about the consequences of breaking the rules as are the younger boys.

BibliographyBarson, Alfred. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972. A revisionist view of Agee, whose earliest critics thought that the writer’s talents were dissipated by his diverse interests, causing him not to produce enough quality material, but who judged him to have been improving and focusing his skills at the time of his death. Barson inverts this thesis, stating that Agee’s finished work should not be so slighted, and that his powers were declining when he died. Contains notes and an index. Should not be confused with A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York (New York: Viking Press, 1965), a collection of photographs by Helen Levitt with an essay by Agee.Bergeen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. The definitive biography of Agee, based on interviews with those who knew him and examinations of his papers. Also contains illustrations, notes, a bibliography of Agee’s writings, a bibliography of works about him, and an index.Hersey, John. Introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. A long and thorough appraisal by one of Agee’s contemporaries who practiced much the same blend of reportage and literary interpretation that distinguishes Agee’s best work.Kramer, Victor A. James Agee. Boston: Twayne, 1975. This short introduction to the life and works of Agee is a good book for the beginning researcher. Besides providing a biography of the writer and a careful discussion of all of his major works, Kramer also includes a chronology of Agee’s life, an annotated bibliography, and an index.Lofaro, Michael, ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Contains an Agee chronology; a brief biography; essays on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on A Death in the Family, and on Agee’s journalism; and a bibliography of secondary sources. Several essays argue for ranking Agee higher as a literary figure than previous critics have allowed.Madden, David, and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds. Remembering James Agee, 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. The twenty-two essays in this book touch on every important aspect of Agee’s life and work. They range from the reminiscences of Father Flye to those of his third wife, Mia Agee. The interpretive essays on his fiction and films are particularly illuminating, as are the essays on his life as a reporter and writer for Fortune and Time.Seib, Kenneth. James Agee: Promise and Fulfillment. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968. As the subtitle indicates, Seib’s study rescues Agee from the critical judgment that his work was more potential than performance. Maintains that Agee’s contemporaries could not recognize his greatness because they judged him by traditional standards, when the writer was actually striking out in new directions that they did not understand. Agee is a link between the traditional man of letters and the new media of film and television. Contains notes, an index, a bibliography of works about Agee, and a bibliography of Agee’s writings. Includes a list of his film and book reviews, which are often hard to track down.
Categories: Characters