The four principal persons of the novel are distinct in appearance, personality, habits, and responses. With a light, deft hand and telling details, Barbara Pym particularizes each character. Often the characters are described as an outsider would see them. For example, a young woman comes into the office to pick up outgoing mail, and the four are fully aware of how she may see them: “Edwin, large and bald with a pinkish face, Norman, small and wiry with his bristly grey hair, Marcia with her general look of oddness, Letty, fluffy and faded, . . . still making an effort with her clothes.”
The small events of their lives are so bound up with the kinds of people they are that any summary of the plot must inevitably include and reveal the leading players in their own undramatic lives. Norman is scrappy and caustic though ineffectual, often flippant or sarcastic. No indication is ever given that there is a different, perhaps gentler person beneath the surface. Edwin, on the other hand, often attempts to soothe or excuse the others, more to keep peace than to offer genuine sympathy. His absorbing interest in the church does have the merit of providing him with endless, though often trivial, activities. As with Norman, what the reader sees is apparently all that there is.
The two women, on the other hand, lead some kind of interior life that adds to their characterization a dimension lacking in the men. Marcia is so withdrawn as to be almost completely isolated from everyone else, but her obsessions, fantasies, and secret acts, such as staring at her doctor’s house, create different levels of personality. Her life is actually quite rich, in its loony, peculiar way.
It is only Letty who seems to think about the situation in which she and her coworkers find themselves. She meditates on the sense of nothingness that she feels upon retirement and on the strangeness of life as it slips away. She shows herself to be sensitive and thoughtful as the other three are not, and it seems clear that through her the author injects her own views of the characters and of their lives, often with gentle wit, always with deep understanding and compassion.