The simplicity of James Baldwin’s short story “The Rockpile” belies its profound message about the effects of parental favoritism in a blended family. The story centers on two step-brothers, Roy and John, and a neighborhood rockpile they are forbidden from playing near. When Roy disobeys this order, he is badly cut. But rather than being punished for disobedience, Roy is coddled by his father, while John is blamed for leading Roy astray. The exposition leading up to the concluding showdown between John and his stepfather establishes each main character's personality, as well as their relationship to the other characters.
Though Roy and John are introduced as brothers, Baldwin quickly reveals that the older John is Elizabeth’s (the mother's) child from another man. Though Roy and John are close to each other, and to their mother, Baldwin also hints that John does not get along with Gabriel, his stepfather and the biological father of Roy, Delilah and Paul. In fact, Gabriel, a local preacher, views John as evidence of his wife’s previously sinful lifestyle.
Roy the Troublemaker
In the description of him and his actions prior to the climax, Roy is depicted as the troublemaking younger brother of John. While Elizabeth warns both Roy and John about playing on the rock pile, Baldwin reveals that her primary target for these warnings is Roy. This is because she understands that John only needs to be told once, but Roy needs constant redirection. Her warning is also intended to direct John to pay close attention to his disobedient younger brother. This aspect of the exposition foreshadows that Roy is destined to injure himself on the rock pile, and John is destined to be blamed for his brother's injury.
John the Outcast
The protagonist of the story, John, is constantly portrayed as being outside of and separate from his family. Baldwin quickly reveals that this is because John is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth. John's illegitimacy is particularly troubling to his stepfather Gabriel, who frequently makes snide, underhanded comments about John.
Gabriel the Hypocrite
Gabriel is described as a preacher, but his actions rarely display the benevolence and kindness normally associated with preachers. Gabriel constantly belittles Elizabeth because she had a child out of wedlock. Additionally, he demeans John and regards him as inferior to his own biological children, Delilah, Paul and, especially, Roy. Gabriel's constant mistreatment of Elizabeth and John foreshadows his concluding showdown with his stepson over Roy's injury at the rock pile.