What Makes a Character Memorable? Look No Further than Truman Capote’s Fiction
“A wiry little girl in a starched, lemon-colored party dress, she sassed along with a grownup mince, one hand on her hip, the other supporting a spinsterish umbrella.” In this line, Truman Capote gives us his initial portrait of the character of ten-year-old Miss Bobbit in his story, “Children on their Birthdays.” The line sets a precedent for the paradoxical imagery and subsequent actions belonging to Miss Bobbit: her portrayal contains both child-like and adult attributes. “Lemon-colored party dress” and “sassed” denotes the look and behavior of a child, while the details accompanying the latter part of the sentence, “one hand on her hip” and “spinsterish umbrella” signal the opposite. Capote’s juxtaposition of contrasting details contributes to the paradoxical nature of Miss Bobbit, capturing her essence at certain key junctures, when she is facing obstacles that define her character. Through these details her personal history and motivations are revealed, and by the story’s resolution, her physical depiction has altered to match the outcome of her character arc.
Yet another facet Capote observes about Miss Bobbit in the first scene and notes repeatedly for the rest of the story is her stare. This creates a third dimension to her character, a masculine one, in the language Capote uses: “…what is more, she looked you in the eye with manlike directness.” This description is most prevalent in her interactions with the boys who constantly try and get her attention: “Most of the time she simply looked through them, even when they tomcatted up and down the street trying to get her eye.” In Miss Bobbit’s depiction as a paradoxical figure, at once part child, part lady and even part male in her directness, Capote creates a character set apart from the rest of the town and further illustrates Miss Bobbit’s distinctive physical qualities with her actions. She sits on her porch, and keeps away from not only the boys but the girls: “Miss Bobbit did not show any interest in them, either.” Capote revisits this aspect of her character again, much later, in her statement, “I don’t want a sweetheart.” For all her outspokenness and going out of the way for others, she casts off attention and sexual advances. With the story’s progression the effect of Miss Bobbit’s paradoxical, even super-human qualities, is heightened
The first interaction which shows greater insight into her thought, value and motivation is Miss Bobbit’s reaction to the rough-handling of the colored girl. “Miss Bobbit helped the colored girl to her feet; she dusted her off, dried her eyes, held out a handkerchief and told her to blow her nose.” Miss Bobbit cares for others and refuses to stand by and do nothing; from this point on she takes a more active role in the events. When she adopts the girl as a friend, gives her a new name, Sister Rosalba, and the two behave in a set apart fashion, it further illustrates her inner motivation to right the wrongs she encounters. Capote also describes her as having physical strength, an external manifestation of her inner maturity and power, as in the incident with Mr. Henderson’s accusations. “Miss Bobbit, who had behaved with admirable calm, told the men they did not know how to tie a proper knot, and undertook to do so herself. She did such a good job that all the circulation stopped in Mr. Henderson’s hands and feet and it was a month before he could walk again.” With each obstacle she overcomes, her character grows in power and action. The next line is, “It was shortly afterwards that Miss Bobbit paid us a call.” She no longer remains an observer on her porch, but a leader.
With each obstacle, the stakes grow higher for Miss Bobbit. Perhaps the highest stakes set for her character are depicted in her speech about the Devil. “…I have called the Devil in just recently. He is the only one who can help me get out of this town.” Her outspoken invitation to darkness juxtaposed with her determination to do good forms yet another paradox about Miss Bobbit. It is she who sets the highest stakes for herself. At the same time that she sets them, she takes even greater action in regards to taking care of others. By starting the business, she exhibits even greater leadership, for here she sets others into action underneath her. More shocking is her insistence to attend to the sick boy: “She stripped the covers off Billy Bob and rubbed him down with alcohol from head to toe. When Aunt El told her she did not think that was a nice thing for a little girl to do, Miss Bobbit replied: ‘I don’t know whether it’s nice or not, but it’s certainly very refreshing.’” Her dismissal of the criticism of others adds an almost saintliness to her action. With each obstacle overcome, her motivation to do right no matter what increases.
Capote’s portrayal of Miss Bobbit’s speech, the matter-of-fact directness, most notably in her dialogue when she refuses to go to school, works as another facet of her paradoxical nature. The greater the paradox, the stronger her character grows, and the language used here is simple and defiant, so much so that it transcends the speech of the adults around her and ascends to a different plane. “No, Mr. Copeland, consider for a moment and you will see neither of us has the time nor energy. After all, it would only be a matter of whose spirit broke first, yours or mine.” The subtext apparent in her speech, of course, is that it would be Mr. Copeland’s spirit that would break first, not Miss Bobbit’s.
The contradictions embodying Miss Bobbit drive the story toward its climax, for immediately following the height of her defiance and disapproval comes Miss Bobbit’s ultimate moment of glory at the amateur program. It also pits Miss Bobbit against the darkness she called upon earlier, and the Manny Fox scandal proves the ultimate test for her. In his description of the aftermath of events, the crowd gathered at the post office, Capote implies that she, too, is part of the crowd, but does not single her out distinctly by observing her character. Thus, in the absence of her standing out, Capote creates the portrayal of her as fallen — the only time she loses her distinctness.
But because of the strength achieved by her surmounting so many other obstacles, “it was Miss Bobbit who broke the spell.” Only after Capote tells of her triumph does he give a brief physical description to reveal the inner struggle, and he chooses to fix on perhaps the most telling physical detail about Miss Bobbit: “Her eyes had grown more vacant than anyone had ever supposed they might, but one day, after the last mail was up, all her old sizzle came back…and proceeded to herd the whole troupe home with her.” Her action and the verb Capote chooses to describe it, “to herd,” reasserts Miss Bobbit as caring leader, her motivations focused outward. “Within a week she’d written over three hundred descriptions of Manny Fox and dispatched them to Sheriffs throughout the South…”
In the final scene, Capote returns again to portray Miss Bobbit with a similar focus as in the beginning, on her physical dress. He seizes upon the moment to let the clothes and props speak to the inner manifestation which her character has reached during her life in the town. “She looked as though she were going to Communion, dressed in white and with a white parasol.” The direct reference to religious practice as well as the purity of her in white matches the outward expression of Miss Bobbit to the inward state, a contrast to her arrival earlier in yellow — a bright, distinct image yet not as pristine as white. Capote follows through in showing her with the same deliberate attention to telling detail through the end. The final portrayal of Miss Bobbit focuses on action and gesture, the most distinct aspect of her character. “…When Miss Bobbit saw them, two boys whose flower-masked faces were like yellow moons, she rushed down the steps, her arms outstretched.” He paints her with the ultimate gesture of openness; in reaching out, she has arrived at her completion upon death.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold), the 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver), the NIEA (Gold), and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. Her debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), was hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” The book earned high praise from the Jewish Book Council, the LA Progressive, Bustle, Washington Independent Review of Books, the Rumpus, the SIBA Award/Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, to name a few. Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and optioned for a feature film. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, Publishers Weekly, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, Writers Omi, The Banff Centre, the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and many more. She teaches writing at Rollins College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando, FL.