The characters in “Sleepers” are primarily defined in relation to their family, housing, and employment status. Kennedy introduces locals like Bernie, Ray’s coworker at the warehouse, and Frank, who has been unemployed for 14 months, both of whom are defined narrowly by their work. In their small, insular town, there is no need for longer descriptions to differentiate people—even last names are not necessary and do not appear in the story. Ray is a single man who works part-time at a warehouse and lives in a shed, but beyond that the reader learns very little about him. Ultimately, Ray can only conceive of himself as “just Ray,” an outcast with no ties to a family, no house, and no meaningful job in the community. With this bleak portrayal of her protagonist, Kennedy highlights the dangers in reducing identities to material attributes.
When commenting on his romantic ineligibility, Ray summarizes himself as “a 35-year-old man who lived in a Colorbond shed at a mate’s place, not exactly unemployed but a part-time storeman”—in other words, he pins his identity down to just his relationships, housing, and employment, all of which are lacking from his life. He has no family or partner, although he still clings to the idea of resurrecting his relationship with Sharon, his ex-girlfriend. The closest relations he has seem to be his drinking buddies Frank and Vince, who are similarly unemployed, and the unnamed “mate” whose property Ray lives on. His job is a part-time, dead-end position at a warehouse, and his house is a prefabricated steel shed, with little in the way of insulation to maintain warmth in the winter. Although he has kept his job, Ray relied entirely on Sharon for family and housing. Their breakup left him single and homeless, with only a pitiful substitute for housing and no romantic prospects. As a result, he can only anchor his sense of self to memories and what he lost. Ray seeks to reestablish the relationship to gain those back, but even that would not free him from depending on Sharon for his sense of self. In contrast, Steve seems “full of focus and purpose” with a house he owns and a teenage son to raise.
Without these material attributes, Ray can only view himself as “just Ray.” In his dream of driving up to Sharon’s house, his unconscious mind imagines her dismissing him as “just Ray” to her new partner. At the end of the story, when he is caught stealing sleepers, Ray also imagines the police identifying him as “just Ray,” someone who is an easy arrest and the perfect choice for a scapegoat to deter others from stealing in the future. Because he does not have connections to a family, home, or meaningful job, there are no consequences to the town for sacrificing him to appease the contractors and set an example for everyone else.
In the world of the story, Ray is miserable without an identity he can take pride in. However, even the characters who are presented as successful and happy, such as Sharon and Steve, do not escape being defined in relation to material attributes. With these depictions of both haves and have-nots, Kennedy suggests that it might be inevitable to base a sense of self on external factors such as a job or a family, and that pursuing these goals is just a fact of life, not an approach guaranteed to bring either happiness or unhappiness.
Identity Quotes in Sleepers
He'd driven past Sharon's house tonight and seen a car in the drive he didn't recognise. He couldn't stop thinking about it; his brain was like a dog jerking on the end of its chain over and over, returning to it. So that'd be the thing to do—get chatting to someone else, let word get back to Sharon that he was out there, available, a catch, on his feet. But even though he could feel those eyes on him (car in her drive, that convulsive choke in his throat as he circled it again), he sat back down with his laden plate on one of the sleepers instead, because the thought of trying to get a conversation going with any of them felt like heavy lifting. And they knew all about him anyway; a 35-year-old man who lived in a Colorbond shed at a mate's place, not exactly unemployed but a part-time storeman. A liability, not a catch.
Turning the keys in the ignition in his car, he fought the impulse to go home via the house again, check if the car was still there. Up his old street, the same streetlight broken, up to the driveway that he used to pull in to every night, taking that normalcy for granted. His ute bumping up over the kerb and the sensor light snapping on as Ray got out of the car in his loser shorts, running to flab, any fool could see that. Then Sharon's silhouette in the ridged glass of the front door, her and whoever was there with her. He saw her put both her hands up to the glass to peer through its distorting ripples at him.
Don't worry, he heard her saying, her voice muffled, it's just Ray, seeing him for exactly what he was; he could hear that in her tone. Her right arm lifted and snapped off the sensor light impatiently, leaving him there in the dark, and the shapes of the two of them rippled and shifted as they stepped back from the door, Ray thinking he would never forget this one moment as their shadows swam together out of the light.
He opened his eyes and saw he was still sitting in his ute outside Steve's place, his hands slack on the steering wheel.