Travels With Charley - Character Summaries
Charley's actual name is Charles le Chien. He is a light brown (though Steinbeck says he is blue) old French gentleman poodle. Steinbeck portrays Charley as immensely wise and precocious and uses him as an instrument for making connections with the many people he encounters on his journey.
Named after Don Quixote's horse, Steinbeck's truck becomes symbolic of his mood and perspective during his trip. His truck is often a comforting shelter when Steinbeck is overwhelmed and disheartened by his journey. Additionally, it represents Steinbeck's view of his own impact on the surrounding ecology. He travels in a way that is self-contained in order to minimize his impact on the environment.
Steinbeck's Wife Elaine
Though she only makes a minor appearance in the text, Steinbeck mentions his wife and the life he shares with her with fondness. Steinbeck spends Thanksgiving with Elaine and her family in Texas.
Man on the Submarine
He provides an example of the "future" of America. He performs his job solely for its "usefulness" and financial benefits without regard for its ethical implications though he mans a nuclear armed submarine. Steinbeck sees disregard of ethical principles in favor or financial gain as a growing trend in America during his trek across the country.
Waitress in Maine
She is described as listless and unhappy, a person who can suck the joy out of a room just by her presence. She represents what Americans are becoming in Steinbeck's eyes: people who lack goals and purpose and do not believe in the prospects of the ever-dwindling "American Dream."
Steinbeck describes the dairy man as the most content person that he meets on his journey. He is the only person who does not seem to want to go somewhere else. The irony is that the milkman has a Ph.D. in Mathematics and evident training in Philosophy. He represents the ideal that people can choose to be happy or content, no matter their situation.
Miss Eleanor Brace
She is the owner of the house where Steinbeck stays while visiting Deer Isle. Not much is said about her in the text, but her female cat George is described as being a completely useless feline in contrast the ever alert and helpful Charley.
Woman with the Pomeranian
Though she only appears briefly, Steinbeck uses her to represent the upper class in American society. She is mean to Charley and rude to Steinbeck. Steinbeck portrays her as having an acidic personality and it is implied that she is overly familiar with alcohol alluding to the pampered and purposeless life of the upper class.
Preacher at John Knox Church
Steinbeck portrays this fire and brimstone preacher as a likable character. Steinbeck believes that unlike most preachers in America, this one is not willing to water down his moral and spiritual beliefs to win a popularity contest. He represents the ideals of religion in America before the 1950s when religion became commonly appropriated to justify middle class consumerism.
Joe and Family (Mobile Home Dwellers)
Steinbeck encounters Joe, a mechanic, and his family and sits down with them for a conversation. Joe and his wife rave about the advantages of having a mobile home and say that it is a necessity in an unsure economy. They state that they would rather have comfort than roots, which is why the mobility of a home appeals to them. Steinbeck uses Joe and his family to illustrate the emerging American perspective that convenience and mobility are more important than stability and long term relationships.
Cabin Owner and Son
When Steinbeck encounters the unhappy duo of father and son, the son is immediately captivated when he discovers that Steinbeck is from New York, a place he has always wanted to visit. He and his father disagree on almost everything; his father wants him to be a "traditional" man who hunts and works hard, whereas the son has taken courses on how to be a hairdresser. The struggle between the two can be viewed as a conflict between the traditional and new value system emerging in American society.
Gas Station Owner
After blowing out one of his tires during a rainstorm, Steinbeck makes it to a gas station where he meets an "evil-looking service-station man" who restores his "faith in the essential saintliness of humans" (142). Though outwardly the man appears to be frightening, he shows kindness to Steinbeck in a way that no one else does on the trip. He calls several stores to find Steinbeck new tires and eventually gets his brother-in-law to bring new tires to the gas station. Through this character, Steinbeck shows that appearances are not always what they seem; just like Americans are trading roots for convenience, they are also not likely to recognize goodness in people if they do not fit a certain physical standard.
The Cheerleaders are a group of racist mothers who vehemently protest against integration outside a school in New Orleans. Steinbeck watches their protest with disgust, writing that the things they say are so vulgar that neither he nor the newspapers will repeat them. He contrasts their position as hate-mongers with the traditional role of nurturing motherhood. He leaves New Orleans as quickly as possible, so sickened by the Cheerleaders that he cannot even bring himself to eat at a restaurant.
Steinbeck offers a white man of about thirty with stringy blonde hair a ride on his way out of New Orleans. The hitchhiker reveals his belief that the Cheerleaders are "doing their duty" in trying to run the African American children out of the school (204). Dismayed, Steinbeck eventually tells the man to get out of the car, and in his review mirror can see the young man shouting obscenities at him.