Characters in Chatwin

Marlene Sloger, American Civilization Graduate Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Bruce Chatwin introduces the reader to a multitude of characters in In Patagonia. Though plentiful, these characters are described in fairly sparse prose, and are rarely referred to again later in the text. Consider two fairly representative descriptions of people he meets in his travels:

Old Mrs. Davies lived in the big house of five rooms. She was a shrunken old lady with the nicest smile and her hair worn up in braids. You could tell she was very tough underneath. In the afternoons she sat on the east porch, out of the wind, and watched the hollyhocks and peonies changing day by day. The living room hadn't changed since she came here as a young bride in 1913. The pink walls were the same. The two Sheffield-plate trays--they were wedding presents--were on the mantelpiece, and the two pottery pug-dogs. On either side of the dresser were tinted photographs of her husband's parents, who came out of Ffestiniog. They had always hung there and they'd hang there when she'd gone. [p. 26]

And from page 55:

The hotel in Rio Pico was painted a pale turquoise and run by a Jewish family who lacked even the most elementary notions of profit. The rooms shambled round a courtyard with a water-tower and flower-beds edged with upturned bottles and full of fierce orange lilies. The owner was a brave and sorrowful woman in black, with heavy-lidded eyes, mourning with a Jewish mother's passion the death of her first-born son. He had been a saxophonist. He had gone to Comodoro Rivadavia and died there, of stomach cancer. She picked her teeth with a thorn and laughed at the futility of existence.

Recounting the styles of both Lawrence and McPhee, how would you describe Chatwin's use of characters and his description of such? For instance, do these examples (or any other character descriptions in the book) seem similar to Lawrence's focus on unconscious levels of human motivation? Do these passages contain judgments or observations in which the reader can deduce why Chatwin would come to such a conclusion? Or, given that the descriptions are all fairly sparse, would you consider his character descriptions more subtle and closer to McPhee's? Finally, why does he offer the reader so many of these? What function do these brief character introductions serve in the text?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 9 April 2002