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Last Updated on January 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089

Lila Ames (née Dahl)

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Lila, who was neglected by her birth family, is raised by a woman named Doll. Though she lacks formal education beyond one year of public school, during which she learned to read and write, Lila is a quick learner, and her wisdom comes from experience. Despite the hardships Lila has endured in her life, she has a gentle character. She is insecure, especially about her looks, and might seem overly fearful at first, but she is actually strong, resilient, and thoughtful. Lila doesn’t trust easily, as many people have betrayed her trust in the past.

Before moving to Gilead, Lila works at a brothel in St. Louis, where she is called Rosie; as a cleaning woman; and at various odd jobs. When she meets and marries John, she is introduced to a better life defined by his gentleness. John loves Lila, but her past trauma haunts her and makes her believe that she doesn’t deserve his love and kindness. Fortunately, as time goes by, she slowly begins to open up to her husband, which strengthens their relationship.

Lila loves taking care of John’s garden and grows roses on the graves of the first Mrs. Ames and her child, which deeply touches John. Lila also spends her time reading and copying from the Bible, and she often has theological discussions with John. Though she spends much of the novel planning to leave—largely as a protective measure to prevent John from coming to dislike her, due to her past—Lila eventually comes to feel more settled and accept her new life with John and their child.

Reverend John Ames

John, who is in his late sixties when Lila meets him, is a Congregationalist preacher and a kind, generous, and wise man. Lila describes him as “beautiful, gentle, and solid,” with a “mild voice” and “silvery white hair.” John’s first wife died in childbirth, and ever since, he has lived his life in solitude. When he meets Lila, he is immediately smitten by her, and when he baptizes her, he gives her a chance to start her life over. He becomes the first person since Doll whom Lila can trust and love. He enjoys discussing Lila’s philosophical questions, as he loves to read and talk about theology and philosophy.


Doll is a tough and courageous woman with a scar on her face. She rescues Lila from a neglectful family and takes care of her. She and Lila join a group of drifters and try to find work whenever and wherever they can in order to survive. Doll never mentions Lila’s previous family, but she knows that Lila’s parents might try to look for them; thus, she carries a knife in order to protect her and Lila. Doll uses that same knife to kill a man, whom Lila assumes to be her father, and is arrested—but she manages to escape and disappears after that. Lila looks for her but cannot find her, and it is presumed that Doll is dead.


Doane, a proud man, is the leader of the group of drifters that Doll and Lila join; he calls them “cow and calf.” Doane can look really mean when he wants to, and Lila thinks that he looks like Hoagy Carmichael. Lila feels somewhat safe with the group; however, she loses her trust when Doane and his group abandon her outside a church. Doane is married to Marcelle, whom he loves, but as the Great Depression gathers force, he becomes frustrated with everyone, including his wife. Still, “he looks out for her and stands beside her, even when he has no words to say.” When he tries to steal something, he ends up being bitten by a dog and goes to jail. Marcelle stays as close to the jail as possible, and the rest of the group scatters.


Marcelle is Doane’s pretty wife. She chose her name for herself after she heard some women talking in a beauty parlor. When Doane is angry at her, he deliberately pronounces her name in a certain way which makes her cry, but she always tries to pretend that everything is okay.


Arthur is Doane’s right-hand man and is always there to back him up. He has two young sons who often like to fight each other. When Doane goes to jail, Arthur and his boys leave the group and try to survive by stealing.


Mellie, another member of the group of drifters, is Lila’s childhood friend. She is funny, curious, and sociable, and everyone enjoys her presence because she makes them laugh. She is brave and fearless, and Lila says that she would “poke a snake with a stick just to get a better look at it.” When Lila wonders what might have happened to Mellie, she mentions that Mellie might be one of those “women who fly bombers across the ocean” or that she might have ended up in jail. Mellie loves her mother, Em, and when Em grows older, Mellie takes care of her.

Reverend Robert Boughton

Reverend Robert Boughton is John’s oldest friend, a Presbyterian minister and Calvinist who is interested in foreign policy. He and his wife have eight children. Boughton is always ready to help John and rarely leaves his side when times are tough. At first, Lila finds Boughton difficult to talk to, as he doesn’t seem to be able to “think of anything to say to her.” Boughton officiates John and Lila’s wedding and baptizes their child, Robby.


Mack, a man with a nice face and a warm laugh, often visits the brothel in St. Louis where Lila works. He is a workingman and always brings chocolate for the girls. He also knows the waltz and the fox trot, and he sometimes dances with all of the girls, including Lila. Mack often teases Lila, describing her as “the kind of girl a man could want to marry,” and Lila becomes briefly infatuated with him.


Missy is a prostitute and Mack’s favorite girl. She is described as “short and plump.” Because Mack teases Lila, Missy sometimes becomes jealous of her. When Missy becomes pregnant, Mrs. wants her to get rid of the child, but she refuses. Missy’s sister comes to the brothel one day and takes Missy away with her.


Mrs. is in charge of the brothel house in St. Louis where Lila works. She is tough and often yells at the girls to keep the house in order.