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Libra

Will the world ever truly know what happened to President John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963? This is the question author Don DeLillo (1936-present) considers in his 1988 historical fiction novel Libra. The main character in the novel is Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who has gone down in history books as Kennedy's assassin. Libra portrays Oswald in a sympathetic light, as the novel questions whether we really know what happened to Kennedy or if any of the conspiracy theories surrounding his death could be true.

Libra Novel Summary

Libra is a historical fiction novel with two distinct timelines. The first details Lee Harvey Oswald's life from his childhood through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Oswald's own death. The second follows CIA retiree Nicholas Branch as he tries to make sense of what actually happened in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Oswald's biography begins when he was a child, growing up with an overbearing single mother. She was manipulative and heavily relied on him because she never had any stable men in her life. Oswald became interested in communism from a young age, which made it difficult for him to fit in. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps but defected to the Soviet Union at the end of his service. He returned to the United States after becoming disillusioned by life in the Soviet Union.

Because Oswald defected and was overtly communist, three former CIA agents decide he is the perfect person to act as their scapegoat. Walter "Win" Everett, Jr., Lawrence Parmenter, and T. J. Mackey were all forced to resign from the CIA following the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion. Everett decides to stage an assassination attempt on President Kennedy's life and put the blame on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Everett believes if he can thwart this "assassination attempt," the CIA will take all three of them back. Unbeknownst to Everett, Mackey wants Kennedy dead, so Mackey hires actual assassins to kill Kennedy.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a botched attempt to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and replace his communist regime with an anti-communist government that would ally itself with the U.S. The invasion occurred on April 17, 1961, less than a year after Kennedy had been elected into office. The disastrous failure had a lasting impact on Kennedy's administration.

The plan was for two airstrikes to destroy Cuban air bases. Then 1,400 Cuban exiles would land in a remote area in the southern part of the island and launch a surprise attack. But through his own spies, Castro learned about guerilla training camps in Guatemala that the exiles were using to train. American newspapers also reported on the "surprise attack." The Cuban military was ready for the exiles when they arrived.

Kennedy didn't want Castro to know that the United States was involved. After the first air strike went badly, he canceled the second one. As the invasion became increasingly dire, Kennedy refused to dispatch U.S. Marines stationed in Puerto Rico to come to the exile's aid. In total, over 100 exiles were killed, and almost 1,200 were captured as prisoners of war.

Through the scope of his rifle, Oswald sees President Kennedy get shot. He realizes he is not the only assassin, and runs from the scene. In the process of escaping, Oswald panics and kills a police officer. He is taken into custody and presented before the press. Strip club owner and self-proclaimed patriot Jack Ruby is approached by mobster Carmine Latta, who tells Ruby all his debts to the mob will be forgiven if he kills Oswald. Ruby has close ties to the police officers in Dallas, and he murders Oswald in police custody.

In the second timeline set years after the assassination, CIA archivist Nicholas Branch pours over all of the research collected on the assassination. Alone in a room with endless data, he starts to suspect things have been purposefully withheld from the case. As he sorts through the evidence, Branch begins to wonder if Oswald was innocent and the conspiracy theorists were right all along.

Libra, Portrait of John F. Kennedy, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Libra centers around the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Libra Book Characters

DeLillo combines a mix of historical and fictional characters in the novel Libra. Here are some of the novel's most important characters.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald is an isolated and impressionable young man who was emotionally abused by his single mother. Oswald grew up as a social outcast and became a follower of communism at a young age. He enlisted in the military but defected to the Soviet Union after being disillusioned by the United States. He marries and returns to the United States when he realizes the Soviet Union is no better. He and a fellow serviceman in Dallas attempt to assassinate the radical, right-wing General Walker, whom they believe is a threat to the country. After the failed assassination, a group of CIA conspirators recruit Oswald to shoot at President Kennedy during a motorcade. It isn't entirely clear if Oswald thinks he is killing the president or simply shooting at him. Nonetheless, he is oblivious to the true plot of the CIA agents and watches as Kennedy is murdered, realizing too late he will take the blame for the assassination. Jack Ruby murders Oswald.

Nicholas Branch

Nicholas Branch is an archivist and analyst who has worked for the CIA for 15 years. He is tasked with sorting through the mountain of evidence the CIA has collected over the years and piecing together the actual events of the fateful day. The more Branch researches, the more uncertain he feels about what is fact and what is fiction. The conspiracy theories start to make more sense, and Brach begins to believe information is purposefully being withheld.

Walter "Win" Everett, Jr.

Walter Everett Jr. is a former CIA agent who was forced to resign after the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion. He comes up with the plan to fake an assassination attempt on President Kennedy and make it appear as though Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is plotting to kill Kennedy in order for Everett and his conspirators to get back into the CIA.

Libra, Painting of Fidel Castro, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Everett conspires to make it seem as though Fidel Castro is behind the assassination attempt.

Lawrence Parmenter

Lawrence Parmenter was also removed from the CIA following the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He, Everett, and Mackey are the three main conspirators in the JFK assassination. When Parmenter discovers Mackey actually wants to murder Kennedy; he doesn't tell Everett of the change of plans. Larry made a lot of personal investments in Cuba before the Bay of Pigs Invasion, hoping that he would make a great deal of money when Castro was overthrown. With the botched invasion and Castro retaining his power, Larry lost a fortune. He hopes with Kennedy gone, the effort in Cuba will resume, and he can regain what he lost.

T. J. Mackey

T.J. Mackey is the third ex-CIA agent involved in the assassination attempt on Kennedy. Unlike the other two, his primary motivation is revenge. When Kennedy called off the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Mackey and his guys were already on the ground, resulting in a lot of them dying. He decides to actually assassinate Kennedy to get justice. Mackey's plan succeeds, but he is murdered before it comes to fruition.

Jack Ruby

Jack Ruby is a Dallas strip-club owner and a self-proclaimed patriot. When his club runs into financial problems, Ruby borrows money from the mob to keep it afloat. He murders Oswald because mobster Carmine Latta tells him his debts will be forgiven if he does.

Carmine Latta

Carmine Latta is a New Orleans mobster who manipulates Jack Ruby into killing Lee Harvey Oswald. He was deeply invested in the drug trade in Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power, and he believes he will profit if Castro is overthrown.

Libra Novel Analysis

The title Libra is an allusion to Lee Harvey Oswald's zodiac sign, given he was born on October 18, 1939. The Libra air sign is represented by the scales, important because of their dedication to balance, symmetry, and harmony. The scale is the only inanimate object of the zodiac.

The scales become an important symbol in the novel for several reasons. For Oswald personally, the scales represent his contrasting ideologies that could cause him to tip one way or the other. For example, he served in the U.S. military but was also deeply communist. He admired President Kennedy, but he wanted him dead. He loved his mother, but he felt burdened and manipulated by her.

Libra, Libra Zodiac Sign Scales, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Libra is an allusion to Lee Harvey Oswald's zodiac sign, which is represented by scales.

Aside from Oswald, the scales also represent the balance (and imbalance) inherent in the novel. For example, each of the three former CIA operatives is attempting to shift the scales back in their favor after they were mistreated following the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. They each seek justice and balance after their lives have been skewed.

Nicholas Brach, too, is trying to find balance in the case. On the one hand, he is searching for the truth and hopes to deduce what really happened to John F. Kennedy. On the other, he realizes there is too much contrasting and missing evidence for the truth to ever be completely clear. He also experiences an imbalance in what he has always accepted as fact and the conspiracy theories that begin to make more sense the longer he researches Kennedy's assassination.

The other symbol in the novel is Oswald himself. He functions as a scapegoat the conspirators choose solely because he is an outsider. They are willing to pin the blame on him and ruin his life to further their own interests. Oswald also functions as a victim of the government's desire to cover up disasters. As Branch hints, there is more to the case than meets the eye, but the government is quick to say Oswald is working alone.

DeLillo received a lot of negative criticism for his sympathetic portrayal of Oswald. What is your impression of this?

Finally, Oswald can be seen as the tragic product of his circumstances. He is presented as a sympathetic character who is only willing to murder because he has been isolated as an outsider and traumatized his entire life. He is vulnerable to the influences of other people because of his traumatic upbringing. The entire time Oswald works with the conspirators, he is used and kept in the dark. His country, his mother, and the people he chooses to trust all fail him.

Libra Novel Quotes

Below are some important quotes from the novel.

“There's always more to it. This is what history consists of. It is the sum total of the things they aren't telling us.” (Part Two, "In Fort Worth")

This quote speaks to the government's secrecy and deceit. The truth is often hidden from ordinary people in order to keep them calm and easier to govern. But, as the quote suggests, there is always more than meets the eye. People should be skeptical of believing everything they are told when the full truth is never revealed.

“He takes refuge in his notes. The notes are becoming an end in themselves. Branch has decided it is premature to make a serious effort to turn these notes into coherent history. Maybe it will always be premature. Because the data keeps coming. Because new lives enter the record all the time. The past is changing as he writes." (Part Two, "6 September")

This quote reveals the true complexity of the Kennedy assassination case. Even years after the murder, with both the government and independent researchers trying to figure out what happened, the entire truth will never be revealed. So many details of the case have been kept hidden or purposefully made up. This quote speaks to the complexity of human nature and the inability to know everything.

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot." (Part Two, "15 July")

This quote echoes a sentiment in DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise: "All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots" (Chapter 6). The deeper Oswald gets in the conspirator's plot, the closer he gets to death. By the novel's end, this quote is realized when Oswald is shot for a crime he didn't commit but helped to plot.

Libra Novel Themes

The main themes in the novel are the limitations of human knowledge and people as multifaceted and complex beings.

The Limitations of Human Knowledge

Nicholas Branch's research into the assassination of President Kennedy is frustrating and largely unsatisfying. The more he scours over evidence, statistics, and data, the less he knows for certain. His ultimate uncertainty reveals one of the main themes in the novel: the limitations of human knowledge.

Because humans such as Branch are not omnipotent and all-knowing, his understanding of the case is limited by what others know and the information he is given. No matter how long he studies the case, the limitations of his own knowledge will always keep him from knowing what truly happened. The only person who knows for certain is Kennedy's actual killer, and even then his knowledge is limited to what he directly experienced.

Libra, A few red question marks in a collection of black question marks, StudySmarterFig. 4 - One of the central themes is the limitations of human knowledge, presented in Branch's struggle to uncover the truth.

This theme also presents itself in the secrets the characters keep from one another. Oswald is kept completely in the dark by the conspirators. The only thing he knows about the assassination is what they tell him, and it isn't until he watches someone else's bullet kill Kennedy that he knows his understanding has been manipulated by those around him.

Even among the conspirators, Everett's knowledge of the assassination attempt is limited. He believes Parmenter and Mackey are involved in a fake attempt on Kennedy's life, but he is unaware they have chosen to murder Kennedy instead. The characters are constantly kept in the dark.

People as Multifaceted and Complex Beings

The novel also humanizes Oswald, a villain in American history, showing that people are multifaceted and complex. DeLillo reveals aspects of Oswald's childhood (such as his emotional manipulation and absence of a father figure) that make him more sympathetic than he is typically portrayed. Not simply a cold-blooded villain, Oswald is an outsider and a misfit who is victimized by those around him. Oswald's dynamic personality shows that people are multifaceted and complex: they are not simply one thing but an entire web of their personal experiences, beliefs, aspirations, and trauma.

The other characters in the novel also portray this theme. The ex-CIA conspirators are all working for their own motivations and are driven by different desires. Everett wants to get back into the CIA, Parmenter wants to make money, and Mackey wants revenge. Although they are similar men who were all persecuted for their involvement at Pigs Bay, they are each completely different from one another, as they are complex and multifaceted.

Libra - Key takeaways

  • Libra was written by Don DeLillo.
  • It is a fictionalized account of Lee Harvey Oswald's involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
  • In the second timeline, a CIA archivist struggles to uncover what really happened in Dallas that fateful day.
  • The title Libra is a reference to Oswald's Zodiac sign, which becomes a symbol for the balance and imbalance in the novel.
  • The main themes are the limitations of human knowledge and people as multifaceted and complex beings.

Frequently Asked Questions about Libra

Libra was written by Don DeLillo.

The main character is Lee Harvey Oswald.

The main themes are the limitations of human knowledge and people as multifaceted and complex beings. 

Libra is a fictionalized account of Lee Harvey Oswald's life and his assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

Libra is historical fiction. 

Final Libra Quiz

Question

Who wrote Libra? 

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Answer

Libra was written by Don DeLillo. 

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Question

Who is the main character in Libra?

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Answer

The main character is Lee Harvey Oswald. 

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Question

When was Libra written? 

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Answer

It was written in 1988.

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Question

True or false: Oswald assassinates Kennedy in Libra

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Answer

False

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How is Oswald humanized? 

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Answer

The book depicts Oswald's traumatic childhood and his loneliness as a social misfit. He is also presented as an impressionable young man that the conspirators manipulate.

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Question

Who are the three conspirators? 

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Answer

Walter "Win" Everett, Jr., Lawrence Parmenter, and T. J. Mackey

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What do all three conspirators share in common? 

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Answer

They were all CIA agents who were forced out after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. 

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True or false: T. J. Mackey  actually wants to murder Kennedy

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Answer

True

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Question

Who kills Kennedy in Libra

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Answer

It is unclear

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Question

What are the main themes in the novel? 

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Answer

The main themes are the limitations of human knowledge and people as multifaceted and complex beings. 

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