When Magnolia’s father purchases the Cotton Blossom, the child leaves the rigid world of her rigidly critical mother Parthenia to plunge wholeheartedly into the glamourous world of a theatrical troupe traveling down the rivers of America toward New Orleans. The life along the American rivers provides a social, geographical, and multicultural education for her, as her life shifts from that of a shy child to an ingenue to the wife of the wastrel gambler Gaylord Ravenal. She follows him to the gambling world of Chicago and, when he deserts her and their child, makes a name for herself as an actress, only to return to the river to manage the showboat after her mother’s death.
Gaylord Ravenal, a smooth-talking southern charmer, has a fatal weakness for faro, an improvident taste for the good life, and a deep passion for his wife. However, outside his gambling element, he is ineffective and improvident. Too ashamed to find other work when his fortunes fail, he leaves Magnolia to build a life for herself and their daughter. He dies without contacting them further.
Captain Andy Hawks, a shrewd man, loves his nomadic showboat life so much that he dies trying to save the Cotton Blossom from grounding. He is Magnolia’s ideal father because he introduces her to tolerance and humor.
Parthenia Ann Hawks, a displaced New England schoolteacher, provides contrast and conflict for the easygoing life on the riverboat. Although she considers life on the riverboat sinful, she amasses a fortune from the revenues as owner and operator. Her rigid view of life forces Magnolia to choose Ravenal over the riverboat; her letters to her daughter show an unchanging I-told-you-so attitude.
Kim Ravenal, daughter of Magnolia and Gaylord, is a prototype of the actress schooled in modern techniques of the legitimate theater rather than in the melodramatic or vaudeville dramas her parents performed. Her marriage is coolly modern, lacking the passion of her mother and father. She loves her mother but does not understand her passion for the showboat life.
Julie Dozier, a biracial actress passing as white, serves to demonstrate racial inequality at a time when miscegenation was illegal in some states.