Character Analysis – Nichole in The Sweet Hereafter
Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter recounts the implications of a tragic and unexplained school bus accident that happened in a fictional town situated in the northern part of New York. The accident epitomizes the incomprehensible and absurd tragedy that reverses the natural order of events and transgresses the limits comprehension. What the narrative pinpoints therefore, is the aftermath and the impact of the death of fourteen children on the small town community of Sam Dent. The novel uses four different narrative voices in telling the story, thus giving four different interpretations for the same events. The choice of the four narrative voices is not accidental, as each of them supplies a different point of view on the accident. Dolores Driscoll who opens and closes the story is the bus driver, who is able to introduce the reader into the atmosphere of the morning in which the accident took place, giving a detailed account of the ordinary process of picking up the children and then driving them to school. Billy Ansel, the next voice in the story, is one of the parents who had lost both of his children, a pair of twins, in the accident. Mitchell Stephens is a lawyer coming from New York and planning to convince the people in town to start a trial against the authorities whose negligence may have caused the tragedy. Finally, there is the beautiful teenage girl, Nichole Burnell, a victim of the accident who has lost her ability to walk as a result of the tragedy. Despite the fact that he story focuses on the reaction and the state of the community as a whole, it can be said that Nichole is a central figure in the story.
As it shall be seen, Nichole has a decisive role in the trial that the town is planning in a desperate attempt to find justice. Moreover, the way in which her life changes after the accident poses a lot of questions to an analysis of the events. The people and the town itself seem to be painfully divided by the tragedy into two halves: the before and the after. The accident seems to have actually sectioned the people’s and the town’s life into two parts that no longer match and that cannot form a whole anymore. In this respect, the way in which the two different sections of Nichole’s life complement each other is one of the most excruciating elements in the story of the Sam Dent community.
Nichole Burnell typifies the American promising teenager. Although she comes from a poor family of four children, she is undaunted and confident. She is also beautiful, talented and intelligent as the results she gets in school prove. Nichole is admired by the other children and also by the adults in the town who place a lot of confidence in her and who often let her babysit their children. Billy Ansel, the widower and single parent of Mason and Jessica, used to leave Nichole with the twins while he tried to numb his pain at the loss of his wife in his meetings with Risa Walker. After the accident, Nichole remains paralyzed for life and loses her chance of ever continuing the normal life she used to have before. It is not by accident that Mitchell Stephens makes of Nichole the central character of his trial, realizing that the consequences of the accident will appear more vivid in the young crippled girl than in the children who died in the accident. However, the most harrowing aspect of the story is unknown to Stephens and to the whole of the community at the same time. Nichole has been deprived of innocence and hope long before the actual accident by her own father, who abused her. This tragedy is even more unjust than the accident itself.
Although she is an open and intelligent young woman, she is already psychologically scarred for the rest of the life. The way in which these two tragedies complement one another in Nichole’s character is rendered extremely powerfully by Russell Banks. Nichole is marked both emotionally and physically by these two independent experiences that nevertheless converge somehow in her mind. The text of her monologue reveals her true state of mind after the accident. Being so young, she is unable to understand all of her own feelings and everything she has suffered, but at the same time, she is extremely sincere and direct. Her feelings towards herself and towards the members of her family are perhaps the most telling. Behind her seemingly simple thoughts lurks the indelible mark of the abuse. The story of the abuse becomes mingled with the rest of the events that Nichole recounts, thus indicating that this experience is a persisting memory that never leaves her mind. What makes the abuse even more dramatic is the attitude of her father who does not possess her with violence but in a discreet way that makes the incest seem almost consensual. Nichole is utterly confused by what is happening to her, especially since she is forced to act secretively and she can’t understand whether she is herself responsible in any way for the behavior of her father.
Moreover, the fact that Sam, her father, used to leave long breaks between each episode of abuse makes Nichole even more confused during these intervals, when she surmises that the experience must have been only a dream of hers. However, the episodes always returned, either in the car when Sam went to bring his daughter back home from one of the families where she worked as a babysitter or in any other secluded place. Thus, through the small confessions that the young girl makes at intervals it becomes obvious that the marks of the abuse are deeply immersed in her subconscious. Before the accident, she feels guilty about her sexual behavior with her father and she is scared of him. This secret fear is all the insidious as it is dimmed by the fact that the abuse comes from a father than is otherwise protective and caring.
Nichole doesn’t fear him because he is violent or oppressive in any way, but she fears him because she unconsciously feels that he is doing something terrible to her. She also understands that she will be unable to do these same gestures with any other boy of her own age. Furthermore, Nichole’s relationship with her mother is also extremely tensed. Mary, as introduced from the teenager’s point of view, is shallow and rather insensitive. The mother is extremely religious but in a conventional and dishonest way. Instinctively, the girl cannot help but put the blame of the abuse on both of her parents, sensing that her mother’s indolence may be equally culpable. The fact that the mother seems to be imbued with religious principles that she doesn’t comprehend is obvious in her inability to recognize the abuse or protect her daughter for it. Nichole alludes to this negligence when she characterizes her mother as someone who thought that God was able to take care of everything, except one’s weight. (Banks 191) This particularity of Mary’s character is enough to showcase her inability to form a true connection with her children. Nichole’s feelings for both of her parents are therefore easily discernible. She cannot help feeling hatred for them as well as feeling extremely insecure and lonely in her own home.
All of the guilt and confusion that secretly scar Nichole before the accident change into a different state afterwards. Thus, in Nichole’s case, the accident has a complex impact. On the one hand, the girl that the community perceives from the outside suffers bitterly since she can never regain her former self. As Nichole herself observes, she cannot consider herself lucky simply because she is still alive, unlike many of the other children. Her feelings while still in the hospital are edifying, as Nichole makes an analogy between her doctor and Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s famous book of the same title. The girl’s perception of her own body becomes distorted and she feels like a monster that does not belong with the ‘normal’ society anymore. The feeling intensifies when Nichole returns to a changed home, where her father has employed all of his skills to adjust the entrances, the doors, the lockers or the mirrors so as to make them accessible for the girl who is now confined to a wheelchair. The changes made in the house become symbolic, as Nichole herself feels different now.
The fact that the space around her and the people she meets have to accommodate somehow to her new “form”, all make her perceive her body as a monstrous or abnormal shape which does not fit into the ordinary pattern of life. Her athletic constitution and her talent as a dancer and a cheerleader only make the pain of the loss of her feet sharper. The change is deeply felt while Nichole is lying on the bed, alone in her room, looking at her legs and realizing that she will never be able to do any of the things she loved before.
Like everyone else in the small town community, Nichole feels she has been somehow severed in two by the accident and that her life will never be the same. This is especially true since, at her age, she is now excluded from the activities she used to take part in before. She does not go to school anymore and realizes that she will not be able to maintain any of her previous relationships with her friends because of her condition. She is at the age where relationships with people of her own age are largely dependent on the ability to socialize, to communicate or to engage in various activities. Therefore, Nichole senses that the others can only regard her with compassion or discomfort, as she is different. While all these consequences of the accident are terrible of themselves, Nichole has even more than this to endure. The wheelchair ironically saves her from her father, who is now unable to touch his daughter. The new room that the family builds for Nichole is also a symbol for a protected space where Nichole is safe from abuse. The scene that takes place immediately after she comes back from the hospital is very conclusive. After being ushered in her new room, Nichole almost immediately demands that a lock be set on the door, so that she may be able to shut herself safe in the room. Her conversation with Jenny, the little sister is also very suggestive, as Nichole sees herself in the young girl, as she was before she lost her innocence.
The two different episodes of her life, before and after the accident therefore meet strangely. The accident cripples her and robs her of her body, but this body was also invisibly marked by the incest: “I never knew who was to blame. But now I know. He’s just a thief, a sneaky thief who had robbed his daughter. Robbed me of whatever it was that my sister still had and I didn’t. And then the accident robbed me of my body.”(Banks 183) After the accident, Nichole painfully understands who was to blame for the abuse and, in this sense, she seems at least partially alleviated: “But I looked at him. Right at him.
His secret was mine now. We used to share it. But not anymore. Now, I owned it completely.”(Banks 183) The fact that she ‘owns’ the terrible secret gives her more power and makes her less vulnerable, but it obviously burdens her immensely. Nichole’s feelings after the accident are therefore mixed and confused. Her body becomes the mark of two terrible tragedies. The first scar, the abuse of her father, is secret and invisible to the rest of the world. The second one, the terrible injury incurred during the accident is so visible that it makes her feel painfully different and isolated from the rest of the world. What is terrible about these two tragedies is that they seem to complement each other, while they are both equally incurable and indelible. Nichole will never be the same on the inside or on the outside. The essential theme of the book, guilt, appears here perhaps more poignant than in any of the other cases recounted. The novel notably raises a number of question on guilt, in both the major event of the story, the bus accident, and other many minor facts, like the relationship between Mitchell Stephens for instance and his drug-addict daughter. Guilt emerges as the major theme everywhere in the book but the answer is all the more distressing in Nichole’s case than in any other. The accident is intentionally described as a mysterious event, Dolores even alluding to a brown, strange dog that she wanted to avoid hitting but of whose actual existence she is very unsure. On the opposite side, the lawyer and other people in town try to find a justification for the accident and punish the guilty person, in this case the state. The tragedy exists but the blame is very hard to establish. Nichole is a victim of the strange accident. At the same time however, she is also the victim of her father, and in the latter case the blame is easily established.
Thus, the young girl appears as a victim of two different forces, of the incestuous and illegitimate desires of a father who abuses her and of an accident that takes away her body and with it all her dreams and aspirations as a teenager. Nichole is a victim both before and after the accident, being tragically and irredeemably scarred on the outside and on the inside. She was a promising girl who might have had a bright future, but whose hopes were shattered by this double event, the abuse and the accident. Banks thus seem to pinpoint the question of guilt in her case, as she is both a victim of a human will and that of life itself with its accidents and catastrophes. Both of these forces however are equally aberrant and incomprehensible.
Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.