In Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, the character of Revel Rowe is particularly intriguing to consider in terms of his psychological makeup and how he functions within the novel. The uncle of the novel’s central protagonist, Ivy Rowe, Revel Rowe is imprudent but very loving and helpful. Although he places considerable emphasis on external presentation, which could be taken as an indication that he is less concerned with being a genuinely good person – the emphasis on presentation draws attention away from the actual circumstances of experience – Revel Rowe nonetheless shows that he is a sympathetic character and he maintains an important, sympathetic position throughout the novel in relation to his niece. Revel Rowe livens the plot of the novel in many instances and his contribution to the story is relevant to understanding the social dynamics of the southern United States.
Revel Rowe is a striking character in the novel from his first appearance and one of the most intriguing details of his representation is the way that he is at once extremely attractive, both to the reader and to other characters within the novel, but also clearly somewhat of a renegade in his approach to live. Revel Rowe is notable for the way that he presents himself. In one of his earliest appearances, he appears wearing “a big black hat like a cowboy hat and black boots and a long dark coat” (Smith 25) and he is also described as having “a black beard and a mustache” (Smith 25). He is consistently well dressed. He also appears to have a good knowledge of social etiquette and behaviors that are perhaps not so well known by many of the other characters, living in such a relatively remote part of the United States, in the region of Blue Star Mountain, where the central protagonist, Ivy Rowe, is born. However, Rowe is also defined by his recklessness throughout the novel.
He persistently takes unnecessary risk in his personal and professional life. He is particularly reckless with women. Although he is charming and fits the stereotype of a ladies’ man because he is handsome, well-kept, and charming, his behavior towards women is not always exemplary; he appears to engage in several relationships with women and he is not respectful of bounds of marriage, for instance. The author raises questions about the way that Revel Rowe behaves towards women, apparently to invite the reader to question the dynamics of relationships between men and women. Revel Rowe does not appear to be subject to much censure for his regular involvement with women. In fact, most characters appear to accept him as a charming individual; they excuse his womanizing and consider primarily that he is an entertaining person. Ivy, of course, does say something about his womanizing in her narrative.
She insists that “Uncle revel cannot keep his hands off the women nor stay outen truble but what I think is, he is just a natural antic” (Smith 26). The excusing, though, is apparent in the way that she describes him as a “natural antic” (Smith 26). The word “antic” is particularly striking within the novel; it stands out within the overall register as quite a formal and descriptive word. Ivy, as the narrator, also describes how “one time Revel looks at moma and jerks his head at me and says, that one maude, she takes after you shel will be truble all rigt, she will be as a buck like you, just wait and see” (Smith 26), which suggests the playfulness of the relationship between Revel Rowe, Ivy Rowe, and Ivy’s mother, which also suggests how the character is generally presented in such a sympathetic way, despite his general playfulness.
On the other hand, Revel Rowe develops as a character. Despite appearing as something of a womanizer whose ethics are compromised by his reckless behavior, in the end, he proves that he is a more caring person than his initial representation would suggest. Although he appears to be rather careless with women, disregarding their feelings, he turns out to actually treasure love a great deal. As a show of love, he stands in the snow for a day and a half after discovering that Mrs. Brown is pregnant with his child. He also leaves a sugar fork for the sake of love and never returns back. This display of love is striking and it introduces a new kind of perspective on the character and even, within the novel as a whole, on the theme of love. In a letter to Mrs. Brow, Ivy relates how “momma paid him cash money for the coffin, she said thank God for Revel Rowe, it is revels money which will get John Arthur buried” (Smith 83). It is also revealed that Revel had an affair with Ivy’s school teacher at one point and it is revealed that Revel is truly unhappy, disturbed the death of Mr. Brown.
As the complexities of Revel Rowe’s character emerge, Ivy seems to be the only one who understands him. It becomes apparent that, in understanding him, she also considers him as her role model, seeing nothing but love from the behavior he displayed. She even insists Revel’s response as a “natural attic” is truly indicative of more profound feeling. Ivy even refers to him, later, as a “man born to love women” (Smith 226), which is not intended in a sarcastic way; the tone is relatively somber and serious. It is a comment on the way that Revel Rowe truly feels about women, upon the sincerity of his feelings, which he also demonstrates in the way that he supports Ivy and her family. By creating such a challenging character, Smith enhances her narrative considerably and creates an interesting counterpoint for her central character.