Ferdinand (fehr-dee-NAHN), a doctor and aspiring writer who narrates the novel. Personally as well as professionally disillusioned, he cares for his patients although he believes most human beings are not worth saving and are, in fact, better off dead. The reasons for Ferdinand’s deep-seated pessimism are evident in his account of his childhood and adolescence. Beaten and abused by his petit bourgeois father, exploited by his employers, and disenchanted with women and love, he finds little to admire in his fellow humans and becomes increasingly cynical and cruel as the novel progresses.
Auguste (oh-GEWST), Ferdinand’s father, an insurance clerk and amateur painter. Handsome, vain, pompous, and cruel, he is well educated but emotionally insecure. A failure both personally and professionally, he frequently criticizes his wife and son for their shortcomings while failing to recognize his own. Given to violent outbursts, he constantly abuses his wife and son verbally as well as physically when things do not go his way professionally. He reveals his reactionary politics by blaming his woes on the Freemasons and Jews.
Clémence (klay-MAHNS), Ferdinand’s mother, a shopkeeper. Well intentioned but physically and emotionally fragile, she spends most of her time unsuccessfully attempting to keep the peace between her husband and her son. Ambitious for Ferdinand, she helps him find jobs (which he never holds) and convinces Auguste to let him go to study at Meanwell College in England. As the novel progresses, Clémence’s health eventually is destroyed through overwork and the beatings administered by Auguste.
Caroline, Ferdinand’s maternal grandmother and, like her daughter, a shopkeeper by profession and a tireless worker. One of the novel’s few admirable characters, she is devoted to her daughter and grandson, whom she teaches to read. She protects both of them from Auguste, whom she detests. In her efforts to provide for her family’s needs, Caroline maintains two workers’ cottages. After repairing the plumbing at one of these cottages, she catches pneumonia and dies.
Uncle Édouard (ay-DWAHR), Clémence’s brother who owns a hardware store and is an amateur inventor. Intelligent, successful, and modest as well as kind, Édouard is Ferdinand’s benefactor. He intervenes quietly in family crises to protect his nephew, pays for his schooling in England, and gets him his job with Courtial des Pereires. At the end of the novel, when Ferdinand is completely down on his luck, Édouard takes him in, cares for him, and encourages him to start again.
Roger-Martin Courtial des Pereires
Roger-Martin Courtial des Pereires (roh-ZHAY-mahr-TAN kewr-TYAHL day pehr-AYR), an inventor, editor of Genitron (a journal for inventors), hot air balloon pilot, and, later, experimental farmer and schoolmaster. An eccentric genius with a weakness for horse racing and prostitutes, Courtial is at once generous, egotistical, sophisticated, and naïve. He is a shrewd businessman as well as a hopeless financial manager. He employs Ferdinand as his secretary at Genitron. After the journal’s failure, the two, along with Courtial’s wife, go to the country to start a school for lower-class children and an experimental potato farm. When Courtial’s methods for growing new and better potatoes fail, he commits suicide.
Nora Merrywin, the wife of the headmaster of Meanwell College. Nora is beautiful, kind, and modest, and she quickly inspires Ferdinand’s passion. As Meanwell College gradually loses most of its students to a new school nearby, Nora grows increasingly despondent. In despair, she seduces Ferdinand and then, riddled with guilt and shame, she drowns herself. Although he is nearby and could save her, Ferdinand chooses to watch her die.
Irène (ee-REHN ), Courtial’s wife and a former midwife by profession. Although she was attractive as a young woman, she has become physically repugnant...
(The entire section is 1,480 words.)