The two main characters, Helen, the heroine, and Gilbert, the narrator, are in some ways very different. Gilbert is a farmer (though he doesn't want to be) in a town in England's countryside, while Helen is niece to and wife of wealthy estate owners in a different part of England. Helen paints and has Romantic notions of the power of love and goodness. Gilbert is handsome, with a temper, and a village flirt. Both love literature. Helen is devoted mother, while Gilbert is generous of heart as is seen when he rescues little Arthur from a dangerous fall. Helen is courageous as is shown by her secret flight away from her husband, Huntingdon, while Gilbert is courageous in his own way, though it looks more like headstrong in his peaceable circumstances.
Helen and Gilbert share the trait of arrogance in common. Gilbert's arrogance leads him make a hasty negative judgement of Helen at the beginning of their acquaintance and later leads him to violence against Lawrence (Helen's brother), who he leaves injured in a damp and cold road. Helen's arrogance leads her to believe that her goodness and influence are enough to change a man's inner being, thus she marries the violent and disloyal Huntingdon. Later, her arrogance leads her to pick quarrels where there need be none, thus adding to her negative reputation and nearly driving Gilbert away when his love could finally safely be expressed to her in her widowhood:
Helen suddenly snatched it from my hand, threw it out on to the snow, shut down the window with an emphasis, and withdrew to the fire.
‘Helen, what means this?’ I cried, electrified at this startling change in her demeanour.
‘You did not understand my gift,’ said she--‘or, what is worse, you despised it. I’m sorry I gave it you; ....'
Some critics say that Helen is characterized without faults and that this absence of faults makes her a less sympathetic character. Others suggest, on the contrary, that though she is religious and moral and devoted to her son and to providing a living for him on her own, her arrogance and impetuosity make her a thoroughly marred character who is, by these faults, responsible for her own misfortunes, though she is unable to recognize this when events are viewed through her arrogance. With these as her faults, she never develops from beginning to end, for, though she learns to regret the consequences, she does not learn to recognize her character flaws and control or alter them.
According to critics, the same may be said of Gilbert: his character lacks depth as he is too good, and he is not an initiator of events but a respondent. Others suggest the same contrary opinion: his arrogance leads to his own misfortunes. There is a possibility that, in the end of the story, Gilbert shows an indication of having learned from his bad behavior toward Lawrence that arrogance leads to adverse results. When he hesitates at passing the gates of Helen's new estate and later at embracing the snow-covered rose given him by Helen, there is some indication that he is contemplating the results of an arrogant opinion of himself versus a humble opinion of himself:
I scarcely closed my fingers upon [the rose], so deeply was I absorbed in thinking what ... I ought to do or say upon the occasion; whether to give way to my feelings or restrain them still.