The Lover Characters

The main characters in The Lover are the narrator, the lover, and the narrator’s mother.

  • The narrator is an older French woman, an esteemed writer, who recalls her coming-of-age in Saigon. 
  • The lover is a young Chinese man from a wealthy family who initiates a love affair with the narrator.
  • The narrator’s mother is a widow who struggles to care for her three children in the face of poverty and psychological turmoil.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Narrator

Although she goes unnamed, the narrator’s anonymity does not inhibit her strength of character; indeed, many might argue that her lack of a concrete identity indicates a tie to the author herself, whose own life aligns in many places with the narrator’s. The narrator is a French woman reflecting on her formative years, which were spent in Saigon. The story is told from her perspective as an adult, many decades later. For most of the novel, however, the narrator is fifteen years old and lives with her family who, after her father's death, live on the edge of poverty. Although she is young, she appears emotionally and physically mature for her age and attracts the attention of a wealthy Chinese man. Despite being twelve years her senior, she validates his affection and soon becomes his lover in hopes of aiding her struggling family. 

The narrator attends an all-female boarding school and has tenuous relationships with the other female students. She is clever and intelligent, and readers watch as she forms the strong observational skills and clear gaze that will eventually serve her well as a writer. Her tone is dry and detached, and she writes with a sense of dissociation that may be a nod to her distance from her fifteen-year-old self or a symptom of her traumatization.

The Narrator’s Lover

A wealthy Chinese man of twenty-seven, the narrator’s lover is the heir to a massive fortune, which his father earned by running a collection of slum neighborhoods in the most impoverished neighborhoods of Saigon. He is a quiet man of few words; his relationship with the narrator unfolds through physical affection. Despite helping the narrator’s family with their money troubles, they treat him poorly because he is Chinese. Although he later admits his love for the narrator, he is too afraid to reject his father’s expectations—and in doing so, his promised wealth—by marrying the woman he loves. Instead, he marries a young Chinese girl in homage to the French woman whom he loved and lost. 

The Narrator’s Mother

The narrator’s mother, like many of the characters, goes unnamed. She is a school teacher, and after the death of her husband, she has done her best to single-handedly feed, clothe, and raise her children. However, she has struggled with severe depression and made several poor business decisions, which have worsened their circumstances. Despite guessing at the nature of her daughter’s relationship, she does not discourage it and frequently takes advantage of her young daughter’s older lover’s generosity. 

The Narrator’s Elder Brother

The narrator’s elder brother is difficult and unkind. However, in the eyes of their mother, he can do no wrong. As such, she overlooks his mistreatment of their younger brother, harshness toward the narrator, theft, gambling habit, and opium addiction. Even though he steals from his family and everyone he knows, the narrator’s elder brother faces little punishment beyond occasionally getting kicked out of the family home for particularly egregious abuses of his siblings. He passes at the age of sixty-five, dissatisfied with his life and achievements. 

The Narrator’s Younger Brother

The younger brother is two years older than the narrator. He is beloved by his sister and less so by his brother. As an adult, he works as an accountant but passes at the young age of twenty-seven due to bronchial pneumonia. This death is a turning point for the narrator, and she tries to kill herself in the aftermath. The narrator blames her mother and older brother for the younger brother's death, and their relationship grows tenuous.

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