Mrs. Vinnie Gardner
Mrs. Vinnie Gardner, a fussy, tyrannical, religious widow. She dominates her timid son Harry, but they nevertheless have a close and caring, if claustrophobic, relationship. A pious woman, she takes a kind of self-righteous pleasure in vicious gossip. She buys cosmetic items from Madam Fay, despite her claim that the use of cosmetics goes against her religious beliefs, because she relishes the sordid tale of adultery and murder that Madam Fay tells her during her sales call. She dies of a ruptured appendix.
Harry Gardner, Mrs. Gardner’s nineteen-year-old son, who works in a bank. He loves his mother, but he has no privacy living with her. He longs to leave but is afraid of hurting his mother. He is interested in Becky, the girl who delivers eggs, but his mother insists that he marry the daughter of a wealthy banker, and he complies. Three years later, he has become a lawyer but is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wife who thinks that she owns him. He leaves her and renews his acquaintanceship with Becky, who awaits execution, having confessed to the murder of Clifford Hopkins. Harry wins an acquittal for her by discovering the true circumstances of Hopkins’ death.
Becky Lorimer, later Becky Fay, a simple, shy country girl approximately Harry’s age. She lives alone on her farm, her family having been murdered by Madam Fay’s husband. Through hard work and self-sacrifice, she has kept the farm working and started a successful egg business. She feels a tender solicitude for the callow Eli Fay, Madam Fay’s son, and agrees to marry him in the hope that the two of them can somehow eradicate the hatred that sprang up between their families after the disastrous affair between her father and Eli’s mother. She falsely confesses to the murder of Clifford Hopkins, hoping to shield Eli from accusation. She refuses to abandon Eli, believing that he is a good man who has been poisoned by the evil influence of Hopkins.
Eli Fay, a childlike young man of nineteen who loves to play with toys and his pet rabbits. When he was twelve years old, his mother abandoned him, and his distraught father went on a homicidal rampage and then committed suicide. Traumatized by these events, he is easy prey for the evil-natured hired man, Clifford Hopkins, who reared him from that time on. A simple and weak-natured man, Eli agrees against his own wishes to marry Becky when Hopkins suggests it. He is terrified of his absent mother, fearing that she will return to punish him if he reveals what he knows about Hopkins’ death. When Harry takes him in and encourages him to be a mature and responsible adult, Eli acquires the confidence to testify at Becky’s retrial and to shed the childlike shell into which he has withdrawn.
Clifford Hopkins, the long-haired, bearded hired man on the Fay farm. An orphan taken in by the Fays as a boy, he has always resented his status as a hireling. His method of avenging himself on the Fays is to plant the idea of murder and suicide in Mr. Fay’s mind and to corrupt the mind of young Eli, over whom he exerts a strong influence. After Eli and Becky are married, Hopkins decides that he wants Becky and her money for himself, which enrages his mistress, Madam Fay. The sullen, violent man dies not as the result of murder but of a seizure.
Madam Fay, Eli’s mother, a lively, stylish cosmetics saleswoman who is consumed with hatred. In the course of a sales call on Mrs. Gardner, she reveals that she ran off with her brother-in-law, Lorimer, driving her husband so mad with anger and grief that he murdered Lorimer’s wife and sons and then killed himself. An orphan herself, it was her hatred of her stepsister (Lorimer’s wife), who made her feel insignificant by neither loving nor hating her, that led her to embark on the deliberately ruinous affair with Lorimer. She had been romantically involved with Hopkins since early adolescence, and it was she who mutilated his dead body, precipitating a murder charge against Becky.
Mr. Manatee, the gleefully morbid executioner. He claims that he has always wanted to be a murderer and delights in the prospect of executing the innocent Becky.