Characters, Themes, and Quotes

Main Characters
Additional Characters
Central Themes
  • Deming Guo/ Daniel Wilkinson 

    As the main protagonist of The Leavers, Deming struggles to adjust to life in America upon the sudden disappearance of his mother Polly. After being adopted by an American family and having his name changed to Daniel, Deming feels the effects of displacement. Though he tries to live up to his adoptive parents’ expectations, Deming cannot assimilate himself to the American culture. He lacks the motivation and academic intelligence to pursue a college career and finds more comfort in his music. As he navigates through life with a poor gambling problem and alcohol addiction, Deming constantly longs for his mother’s return and a true sense of belonging. Despite being completely uprooted to a better life, Deming wants nothing more than to be reunited with his mother.

  • Guo Peilan/Polly Guo 

    As a single mother, Polly struggles to face the challenges of parenthood and life as an immigrant. After bearing her son out of wedlock and completely uprooting herself to America on a loan shark, Polly seeks to start anew and escape the gendered roles and expectations of her culture. As she navigates through life in her new homeland, she finds difficulty in assuming the traditional motherly role to Deming and overcoming the mistakes of her past. Though she tries to provide a better life for her son, the limitations society imposes on her prove to be far more debilitating than she ever imagined. One morning when working at the local nail salon, Polly is taken by the FBI and transported to a facility in Texas for her illegal immigration status. Upon spending two years in captivity, Polly is deported back to China and forced to leave her old life behind in NYC entirely. Eventually after years of being separated from Deming, the two reunite in her hometown of Fuzhou, China.


  • Leo Chen

    As the boyfriend of Polly, Leo assumes the fatherly figure role to Deming. While working as a butcher in a meat factory and and maintaining a simple life in Chinatown, he never learns to speak the English language. Though he survives on minimal income, he lacks the same ambition as Polly for a better, more fulfilling living. However, after the disappearance of Polly, Leo chooses to return back to his hometown in China without ever tracing the whereabouts of Deming or his mother. Despite the love he has for both Polly and her son, he marries another woman and pursues a new life entirely.

  • Vivian ChenAs the sister of Leo and mother of Michael, Vivian resides in the same apartment as her brother, Polly, and Deming. Though she is the first in her family to come to America, she lacks the same ambitions as her brother and remains indignant to the American culture. When Polly disappears, Vivian believes she is incapable of caring for both Deming and her son Michael and decides to give Deming away to an adoption agency. While she maintains some regrets about lying to Deming and giving him up for adoption, she feels her decision was the only option under these unfortunate circumstances.
  • Michael Chen -

    As the son of Vivian, Michael develops a close relationship to Deming during their childhood. While more academically inclined than Deming in his schooling, he never values their friendship any less. After becoming separated from Deming at a young age, Michael continues to focus on his academics. Eventually, he becomes a lab assistant at Columbia University. Soon thereafter, Michael reunites with Deming and decides to live with his old friend once more. Together, they pursue the trials and tribulations of adulthood in NYC.

  • Yi BabaAs the father of Polly Guo, he finds difficulty accepting his daughter's desire for independence and life beyond her culture. After his daughter moves to America and struggles caring for Deming, he assumes the parental rights of her son. Upon Deming's arrival to China, Yi Baba watches over Deming until his unfortunate passing. At this time, he learns to embrace his daughter and the nontraditional life she cultivated for herself.  
  • Kay WilkinsonAs the adoptive mother of Deming, Kay struggles to assume the motherly role to her son. While she tries situating herself to Deming’s culture, Kay finds difficulty in overcoming her insecurities and racist ways. Despite being a professor and an avid woman’s right activist, she lacks the intellectual capacity to understand the complexities of her son’s culture and adoptive parenting. When Deming encounters a serious gambling addiction and alcohol problem, rather than be understanding of his issues, Kay remains unempathetic. Eventually, upon learning Deming's discovery of his birth mother, Kay mends her relationship with her son.
  • Peter WilkinsonAs the adoptive father of Deming, Peter remains less doubtful in his decision to adopt. Though he devotes himself entirely to his career and struggles to prioritize the needs of his family, Peter remains stern in his expectations of Deming. While he introduces his son to the world of music, Peter struggles to accept the lack of academic intelligence Deming possess. Peter also finds difficulty in understanding Deming’s gambling addiction and refusal to maintain the wishes of him and his wife. Though his relationship with his son collapses when Deming drops out of college to pursue a music career, he rebuilds his bond with Deming upon his return from China. 
  • Roland FuentesAs a close friend of Deming’s, the two bond over their similarities to one another. Coming from an Mexican American family, Roland understands the struggles of being a person of color in a predominantly white society. Though English is his native language, Roland still feels the pressure of following cultural expectation and tradition. During the peak of their friendship, Roland and Daniel pursue a musical career together and start a band. Yet, as Roland establishes the artistic vision and sound, he kicks Daniel out believing his musical talents are not up to par with the band’s standards.
  • Angel HemmingsAs the adopted daughter of the Hemmings and family friend of the Wilkinson’s, Angel establishes a friendship with Deming instantaneously. Since both she and Deming come from adoptive families, they understand the difficulty of living life with a dual identity. Though they maintain a friendship for many years, that relationship is tested when Deming borrows $10,000 from Angel to gamble. Eventually, feeling betrayed by Deming and his devious ways, Angel cuts ties with her old friend.
  • Lin Young – As the husband of Polly, Lin helps Polly to move forward from her past and build a successful business for herself. After meeting Polly in an English class in their hometown, Lin falls for Polly instantly. Though they develop a strong partnership and love for one another, Polly’s desire for independence places a strain on their relationship. Eventually, their marriage ends when Polly leaves Lin to take up a job in Hong Kong.


  • The Power of Language and Cultural Identity  –

    Throughout the novel, language serves as an integral part of one’s identity. As Deming and Polly navigate through life in America, they struggle balancing between the use of their native tongue and that of English. Though they understand the power of language, Deming and his mother find difficulty in being accepted as non-native English speakers. As examined firsthand when Deming’s adoptive parents encourage him to speak English, while they believe this will provide him more opportunity and acceptance, they fail to recognize the racist nature of society. While Deming tries to assimilate himself to the American culture, he is constantly mocked and ridiculed for his use of dialect. Beyond this, Deming remains conflicted about his true sense of self. By changing his name and being forced to develop a new way of communicating, Deming feels disconnected from his roots entirely. Fortunately though, in developing a more practical approach to language, Deming learns to unify his two worlds together and be efficient in his use of each dialect.

  • HomeThroughout the novel, Deming and Polly struggle finding a true sense of home. Since both characters view home as a state of being as opposed to a physical place, they constantly seek a feeling of belonging. Beginning with Polly, although her physical home was in Fuzhou, her true sense of home developed when she migrated to America. By escaping the confinements of her culture and developing her own form of independence, Polly finds more peace within herself. Even when she returned back to China and developed more stability in her life, Polly felt displaced. She migrated from place to place, until she could reach that feeling of complacency never stopped. Similar to her, Deming moved around constantly until he was finally at a place of completely certainty with himself.
  • Gendered Roles -

    As Polly and Deming seek a new life beyond their homeland, they struggle to overcome the expectations of society. Through Polly, she finds difficulty in adhering to the gendered roles of her culture. While women are expected to be the caregivers and providers of their family, Polly strives for more. She has a child out of wedlock and lacks the nurturing nature of most mothers. Throughout her journey of self-discovery, Polly battles with remaining true to herself and assuming the customs of her Chinese heritage

    Moving onto the story of Deming, he struggles to maintain the expectations of his adoptive parents. While they encourage him to achieve a college degree, Deming prefers playing music over learning. He further battles between embracing his dual identity as a immigrant and American citizen.

  • The Modern Day Migration ExperienceThrough the life of Polly, she reflects a troubling reality about the modern day migration experience. Within Polly’s experience, she sheds light on the unlawful treatment of immigrants within the United States. After borrowing thousands of dollars in loans to migrate to America, Polly is bound to a life of debt. Though she tries to overcome her financial woes, the American legislation places Polly in a unfair bind. Due to her low socioeconomic status and the flawed legal system, Polly is systematically denied the opportunity for upward mobility. Beyond this, Polly is dehumanized and treated as less than equal to those of power and wealth. As examined when she is arrested and detained in Texas, Polly is refused basic human rights. Instead of gaining access to a proper hearing, Polly is punished for asserting her independence and denied the right to a lawyer or legal counsel. In addition, she is subjected to cruel and inhumane living conditions.


Narrator's Voice:

“She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street.”― The Leavers, pg. #4

“One week later, tucked into a double bed sheathed with red flannel, Deming Guo awoke with the crumbs of dialect on his tongue, smudges and smears of dissolving syllables, nouns and verbs washed out to sea. One language had outseeped another; New York City had provided him with an arsenal of new words. He’d bled English vowels and watched his mother’s face fall.”  ― The Leavers, pg. #48

"Even the name Daniel Wilkinson seemed like an outfit he would put on for an unspecified period of time, until he returned to his real name and home planet. Where that real home was, however, was no longer certain." ― The Leavers, pg. #77

“Daniel Wilkinson was two and a half feet taller one hundred fifty pounds heavier than Deming Guo had once been, with better English and shittier Chinese. Ridgeborough had made Daniel an expert at juggling selves; he used to see Deming and think himself into Daniel, a slideshow of perpetually alternating between the same two slides.”― The Leavers, pg. #95

"He had once stood with his mother and Leon on the Staten Island Ferry, both of them with their arms around him, their love sure and shining, the kind of gesture Kay and Peter tried to offer up but he could never bring himself to fully accept. He had lost so much, and he was lost. The distance between then and now felt enormous."  ― The Leavers, pg. #145

Guo Peilan/Polly Guo:

"For Polly, the girl who'd defy odds, the girl who could do anything. New York was parallel gift of a life, and the unrealness of being here gave even the most frightening things of layer of surreal comedy. Peilan continued on in the village, feeding chickens and stay cats and washing cabbages, as Polly lived out a bonus existence abroad." ― The Leavers, pg. #142"


As you filled out into a new person, so did I, and I tucked the years  without you away as another triumph."― The Leavers, pg. #186


" I wanted to give you the chances I hadn't taken for myself. Show you didn't have to settle, stay put."― The Leavers, pg. #191

Kay Wilkson:

"We're expected to do all the childcare and all of the cooking and go to work and teach and do research and write our own books. We're expected to support our husbands make sure they're taken care of so they can do their very important work.". ― The Leavers, pg. 56



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Erika Memolo ’19

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