Jacob is the protagonist of this story. Readers witness about three months of his twenties and a few days of his nineties. He is a lovable person who shares whatever he has with those around him when he is young, but he keeps pretty much to himself in his later years. The love of his life is Marlena, the woman he meets in the circus. The two of them fight against their love in the beginning, but circumstances bring them together to the point where they cannot deny how much they want to be together. Marlena becomes pregnant, and the young couple knows they must run away together. They fear for their lives and the life of the unborn baby. They face challenges together and reap the benefits of their circumstances. Although readers do not witness their life as husband and wife, the elder Jacob recounts some of the details and continually mentions how much he misses his wife. Their children remain in the background, only mentioned by the elder Jacob when they fail to come visit him one Sunday afternoon.
Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, is a symbol more than a character. Al represents misguided humanity. He is power-hungry, wanting to create a circus as great as the Ringling Brothers, but he has no heart. He takes advantage of other people’s misfortune. He uses the weak as stepping-stones to his goals.
Between Jacob and Marlena’s love and Uncle Al’s lack of it stands August, a man with a split personality. When he is in a good mood, August is capable of lavishing gifts on his favorite people, making them feel at ease and adored. But when August does not feel good about himself, he is savage. He becomes irrational and paranoid, trusting no one around him. He has no sensitivity toward the animals he trains, denying their intelligence and emotions. He lashes out at those he wants to love.