Fred Ferguson, a bank employee in Belmond, Iowa. Born and reared on a nearby farm, he has worked hard for what he has: a pleasant home, a good job, and the respect of his church and his community. Fred does not see that society is changing. If he is one of the last of his social class to hire domestic help, upgrade his house, or buy a car, it is not that he is consciously resisting the lure of materialism but simply that he likes things as they are, especially when the old ways save him money. Only late in life, when he returns from his first long trip away from home to find his church closed and his bank shaky, does Fred see that his world and his values are rapidly disappearing.
Annie Ferguson, Fred’s wife. Reared in a poor but easygoing German family, Annie resents being forced into the mold of the Fergusons, whom she sees as being ruled by Scotch stinginess, and having to fit into the role of the perfect wife and mother, thereby losing her own identity. Even though the children she loves are soon grown and gone, leaving her with a husband who does not understand her, Annie thinks of herself as fortunate. After she has finally accomplished her heart’s desire by taking a trip to California, she finds that her old passion for Fred has returned.
Carl William Ferguson
Carl William Ferguson, their older son, who tailors his behavior to win the approval of others. Adored by his mother, Carl always tries to be a “good boy.” In high school, however, when he leads the student body at a pep rally, he gains a new self-confidence, and he is certain that he will accomplish great deeds. Although he is drawn to strong-willed women, after graduation from college he marries his high school sweetheart, the colorless, passive Lillian White. Carl becomes a school principal, then a superintendent. When two of his teachers are threatened with dismissal for the sin of smoking, Carl comes to their defense. This seemingly courageous act is actually motivated by his own yearning to escape from dull respectability and his unresponsive wife. When one of the women Carl likes finds a new job for him, Lillian attempts suicide, and Carl buckles. Realizing that he lacks the will to rebel, he accepts his own mediocrity and takes another position.
Margaret Ferguson, their older daughter, a born rebel. Margaret regularly flouts authority, as when, against her mother’s orders, she goes home with a classmate from the wrong side of town. Margaret dislikes the girls who remind her of Annie and of her sister, Dorothy. She thinks of them as “Eves,” destined for obedient domesticity, and of herself as an exotic, defiant Lilith. Margaret always chooses a dangerous but interesting direction for her life. She is expelled from college for helping a friend to elope. After going to New York, ostensibly to take a library course, she changes her name to Margot and becomes involved, first, with bohemians in Greenwich Village, then with a married man, Bruce Williams, who eventually leaves her. When Bruce finds that he cannot live without her, Margaret takes him back as her lover, as usual preferring passion to prudence.
Dorothy Ferguson, Fred and Annie’s younger daughter, who is much like Annie. Even as a small child, Dorothy buries her feelings for the sake of domestic tranquillity, for example, hiding her tears when Margaret deliberately fastens her hair too tightly. At school, Dorothy is popular because she is so sweet and “feminine.” She marries the handsome Jesse Woodward and expects to live happily ever after. When her parents visit her in California, they find Dorothy cheerful and uncomplaining, despite the fact that Jesse’s financial problems have forced his family to leave their comfortable home for a tiny rented house.
Bunny Ferguson, Fred and Annie’s younger son. Annie enjoys her affectionate “baby” more than any of her other children; however, Bunny secretly feels detached from his family. Instead of attending a church college, he goes to the state university. One summer, he works out West, and because he sees immigrant workers badly treated, he starts questioning his family’s capitalistic values. At the university, he is fascinated by a fellow student, Charlotte Bukowska, an avowed Marxist. When Bunny brings her home as his wife, Fred and Annie are shocked and disappointed, and Charlotte makes no secret of her dislike of them. Although Bunny seems to accept Charlotte’s view of life, on a visit to the old home place, he reveals his feelings for the land and for the past.