The only fully developed character in the novel is Father Dowling himself, and even he is developed only to the extent that he is his obsession with the prostitutes. He is characterized as the most eager young priest at the Cathedral, one who is loved by all who meet him. The other characters in the story, however, are never quite sure whether he is a naive innocent, a hypocritical lecher, or a truly saintly figure. Many times the reader is not sure either.
Although Ronnie is older and wiser than the young and “innocent” Midge, there is little in the novel to characterize the two girls as anything more than two young women who, because of the economic conditions of the time, have been driven to prostitution. Ronnie comes from a broken home in Detroit. She enters prostitution by accepting gifts from men to help pay her rent. After losing her job, she takes to the street full-time. Midge came from Montreal with a lover, who then abandoned her. The other characters, Lou and Mr. Baer, for example, seem more representative than real, for they represent sensual and cynical antagonists to Father Dowling.
The relatively two-dimensional nature of the characters is the reader’s first clue to the basically allegorical intent of the novel. Father Dowling’s love for the young girls is so unselfish that it approaches the Christlike. Consequently, Ronnie and Midge represent Mary Magdalene or the adulterous woman from the New Testament, while Robison is like a Judas and the Bishop like Pontius Pilate. Satan is represented both by Lou and by the hotelkeeper. All this is not to suggest that Father Dowling is a Christ figure in this novel, but rather that the novel makes use of characters who replicate biblical figures in order to explore, not a social problem, but a theological problem about the nature of love.