Galton Flood is a proud and sensitive man brought up by a tyrannical and prudish mother. He allows himself to become a pariah in his own community, especially in the circle of his family and friends. He desires women and is capable of love, but because of his mother, he also hates women and is afraid to be emotionally open to them. In effect, his psyche is paralyzed to the point that he can enjoy neither his freedom nor his male companions. His repression results in murder, and the murder results in his further paralysis.
The women in the story embody all that Galton needs from and despises in the female. He needs his mother’s love, but she emasculates him. He needs Gemma’s love, but she is willful and more experienced than he. Nekka lives in the glow of his admired brother Selwyn’s love, but she is stingy and spiteful to Galton. Mildred is the only woman with whom Galton feels comfortable, but only because she allows him to forget who he really is—a seriously damaged soul in need of a profound cure.
All the male characters in the story possess something that Galton wants. In the beginning, Selwyn has freedom and sexual ease, and later, success as a husband, father, and professional man. Galton’s friend Winston has love for a woman and a carefree attitude toward adversity. Burrowes has control over Gemma as a father unburdened by a wife. The Walk-Man, Giles’s brother, has a reputation and the respect of other men. Giles himself has the trophy of Gemma’s virginity and her child. The watchman has wisdom and the affection of his male peers. Even Harris, Galton’s neighbor, attracts Galton, for he has a mother who depends on him and who, as a whore, makes a virtue out of his own seedy profession. For Galton, Harris represents the success of the lust and selfishness in himself which confuse him.