There are only two main characters in the novel: Harding and Hester. Lewis’ emotions are concentrated and intensified in Harding. Like Lewis, Harding is extremely idealistic but also “carries a sceptic on his back.” He has repudiated the intellectual attitudes of his time and feels ostracized by his professional colleagues and rivals. He has come to believe that history is not worth recording because it does not reveal man’s passion for sanity, decency, and morality but is, in fact, “the bloody catalogue of their backslidings.”
The relationship of Harding and Hester, clearly based on Lewis’ marriage, is solidly established in the opening section before being tested and destroyed in the Canadian crucible. Harding, who has an abnormal sexual appetite, also has an intellectual suspicion of panting and grunting between the bedsheets. He sees Hester as an abstract Woman and live pinup girl and never learns that she is a human being whose desires and needs are independent of his own. When he resists Hester’s sensuality, the basis of their marriage, and she can no longer reach him on the physical level, their passionate solidarity begins to crumble, and they start to watch each other with the sullen reserve of caged animals. Harding does not suspect the depth of his love for his wife or recognize the intensity of her suffering until it is too late to help her.