John Kemp is crammed with facts and prepared for the scholarship examination a year ahead of time by his teacher, Mr. Crouch. He is the wrong age, the wrong class, and at Oxford at the wrong time. His retreat into fantasy is a way of controlling reality by inventing a world. Reality, however, keeps imposing itself on John’s defenses: Jill comes to life, his hometown is bombed, he is thrown into a fountain. He has left his home and past behind, but he is not yet a part of Oxford. His character is defined by these opposites, but rather than choose one over the other, he suddenly sees that the differences are only apparent.
Christopher Warner is a stereotypical Oxford “hearty”; he is public-school and middle-class and is interested only in drinking and playing sports. He seems to believe that he can exploit whomever he chooses. He copies John’s English notes and essays, and borrows money from his cronies. Oxford seems to be a social playground to him rather than an intellectual experience. His move to London with a mistress at the end of the novel suggests an enlargement of his horizons and, in contrast to John, a perfect adaptation to his environment.
Gillian is a minor character, but she assumes a symbolic importance in the novel. She seems to be a typical middle-class schoolgirl with a natural desire to get closer to the Oxford world. The reader never knows what she is thinking, and she does not change. What changes is John’s perception of her. She is inflated into the ideal by John and then reveals herself to be human and real.