Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He is a fifty-year-old man who sees life only in terms of human rationality and technology and what is predictable by the laws of logical deduction. He discounts fate and chance as well as the imaginative and artistic sides of the personality. Faber has had lifelong difficulties in committing himself to emotional relationships with women. The novel is narrated by him in retrospect as he lies in the hospital, about to undergo an operation for a serious stomach ailment, perhaps cancer. His stomach problems grow worse throughout his chronicle, and the prognosis for the success of his operation at the novel’s conclusion is not good.
Ivy, Faber’s twenty-six-year-old lover in New York. As her name suggests, she is “clinging” and desires a more permanent commitment from the engineer; however, he seeks to break off their relationship.
Hanna Piper, a Swiss archaeologist whom Faber abandoned twenty years earlier. He got her pregnant and, fearing any attachment, urged her to get an abortion. Without his knowledge, she gave birth to the child and married Faber’s friend. The child, Faber’s daughter, is the young woman he falls in love with on the ocean voyage. Hanna’s confrontation with Faber at the end of the novel becomes a revelation of his personal failures in life.
Elisabeth (Sabeth), a twenty-year-old student and Faber’s lover as well as his illegitimate daughter. She is a very impulsive and artistic individual. In her love affair with Faber, she brings out the emotional and intuitive sides of his personality.
Joachim Hencke, the Swiss owner of a plantation in Guatemala. He is Faber’s former friend who married the pregnant Hanna when Faber abandoned her twenty years earlier. He commits suicide, and Faber finds his body near the beginning of the novel.
Herbert Hencke, a fellow airplane passenger with Faber at the beginning of the novel; he turns out to be Joachim’s brother. He persuades Faber to travel to the Guatemalan jungle in search of Joachim.