The characters of Malamud’s novel serve to present different aspects of Dubin’s life as a husband, father, lover, and biographer and to demonstrate his struggle to live his life fully and responsibly. Dubin, the sometimes comic biographer, reflects the universal and continuous struggle one has with the self. Dubin determines to ensure that his own life is a rich and full one. Motivated by his subjects, he struggles to come to terms with his own life, the lives he writes about, and their impact on his life.
Fanny Bick is associated with sensuality. She is pictured with fruits: Her orange-colored car has a half-eaten peach and a half-eaten pear on the a seat, and she throws lemon-colored panties at Dubin. She embodies the principle of sexuality that Dubin wishes to integrate into his life. Later, she becomes someone he loves and to whom he is committed, one of two women between whom Dubin must choose.
Kitty, Dubin’s intelligent, caring, and patient wife, waits out his moods and his impotence, supporting him and encouraging him and yet driving him crazy. Less spontaneous than Fanny, she fears unexpected death. Kitty experienced romantic love in her first marriage and has looked for and found in marriage to Dubin a satisfying, productive relationship. She learns of his affair but waits to see what he will do.
Gerald, Dubin’s adopted son, is undergoing his own life crisis. Having deserted from the Army when his tour of duty in Vietnam came up, he lives abroad, feeling estranged from his parents and unable to make a decision about his life.
Maud, the daughter of Kitty and William, has dropped out of college after a year, having become involved with her Spanish professor, a married man her father’s age. She has become pregnant with the professor’s child. She plans to have the child and live in New York City, determining, unlike Gerald, to make choices and live with them.