It's hard to get an accurate read on Mr. Gitney. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? Is he just a really weak human being? We're not sure the book answers this question definitively (though you could certainly argue that anyone who's in the business of buying and selling people is inherently bad—we wouldn't stop you).
Part of why it's hard hard to figure out where Mr. Gitney falls in the good versus evil debate is because he gives Octavian and Cassiopeia the chance to have so much more than the average slave. In a time when owning people was standard fare for white men with money, the ways in which Mr. Gitney treats Octavian and Cassiopeia are decided not standard—school, fancy dresses, and so much more were pretty much the polar opposite of what most enslaved people were given.
Plus Mr. Gitney clearly cares for Octavian. When Octavian finds out about Mr. Gitney's experiment on him and his mother and how important it is, they have the following exchange:
"Sir—," I said, "you shall be glad of my success?"
He smiled. "Of course, I shall," he said. "You are a good boy."
I asked, "Shall I someday be called by a number?"
He looked fondly upon me. He said, "That, Octavian, is something to aspire to." (1.11.66-69)
Gitney's almost like a father-figure to Octavian—not only does he tell the boy he'll be happy to see him succeed, but he also doesn't discourage him from aspiring to join the esteemed ranks of people who get numbers. Even at the end of the book, during the final interview, Mr. Gitney tries to show how much he cares for Octavian and how different he is from Mr. Sharpe:
[Mr. Sharpe] had turned, as was his wont, to the side, and was preparing for his talk in profile, when Mr. Gitney, wracked, it was clear, with guilt, broke in: "Octavian, we do not believe in slavery any more than you. We would abolish it, if we could. I would free you and the others tomorrow, if I could…" (4.12.17)
The problem, of course, is that Mr. Gitney does have the power to free Octavian—he just doesn't want to deal with the financial loss he'd have to suffer from doing so. Here's how he continues his guilt-ridden self-defense:
"But you must understand, there is an expense for everything… To manumit you, I would have to pay a bond… grievously expensive…" (4.12.17)
Hey, Gitney—you know what else comes at a "grievously expensive" cost? A life of enslavement. And as for his claims that he would free Octavian if he could, well, we're pretty sure no one made him buy the boy and his mother at gunpoint. In other words, he could've just abstained from participating in systemic slavery in the first place, no problem.
Mr. Gitney's a tricky dude to make a determination about. Do you think he's a bad guy, on par with nasty Mr. Sharpe? Or does is he just weak and flawed, a bit of a coward but not mean in his core? It's a tough call, Shmoopsters, and we're leaving it up to you. The only thing we'll say for certain is that we think you can argue this one either way.