Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
Lydie Hickman, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Joshua Hickman and Lydie Breeze Hickman. Highly sensitive and theatrical, Lydie has comically flighty ways that do not quite hide the emotional maelstrom underlying her adolescent psyche. Obsessed with her mother’s suicide and embarrassed by her father’s stint in prison, Lydie is worried that she will never become a woman because she has not yet begun to menstruate. She claims that she hates men in general and her father in particular, but in reality she yearns for adulthood, the attention of men, and a normal relationship with her father.
Joshua Hickman, Lydie’s father, the widower of Lydie Breeze, a tired, broken man in his mid-fifties. Joshua fought in the Civil War, and after the war he attempted to form a utopian community with his wife and his best friends, Dan Grady and Amos Marsh. He now does little but drink rye whiskey and swim far out into the Atlantic Ocean. He is back from the prison term he served for accidentally killing Dan in a petty, drunken fight.
Jeremiah Grady, a highly successful actor and Dan Grady’s son. In his late twenties, Jeremiah is unyieldingly serious and histrionic, partly because of the torment he feels over his difficult past and partly because his manner reflects a lifelong habit of adopting a role to compensate for being unsure of himself. At the age of thirteen, Jeremiah witnessed his father’s death and was then seduced by Lydie Breeze, who infected Jeremiah with the syphilis Dan Grady had given her. Jeremiah travels from England to Nantucket to avenge his father’s death but instead comes to a peace with his past and drowns himself with Beaty, his lover from adolescence.
Beaty, an Irish serving girl in her early thirties. She works for the Hickmans but is, in effect, a surrogate mother for Lydie Hickman. Feisty, independent, protective, and outwardly hostile toward men, Beaty has an enormous influence on the impressionable Lydie, fomenting the young girl’s distrust of men. As a fifteen-year-old girl working for the Hickmans, Beaty was starved for affection and yearned for the kind of male attention commanded by Lydie Breeze. She gave her virginity to the equally young Jeremiah and contracted syphilis.
Gussie Hickman, Lydie’s older sister, twenty-two years old, the secretary and mistress of Senator Amos Mason, an aspirant to the presidency of the United States. Gussie affects refinement, dressing in fine clothes and dropping names and places encountered during her travels, but betrays her antecedents with a coarse vocabulary. She chain-smokes and wheezes comically with severe asthma. Endearingly irreverent and verbally clever, she is also superficially addicted to the spotlights of power and prestige.
Jude Emerson, a young man close to Lydie’s age who captures and bands birds for the federal government. He falls in love with Lydie.
Lucian Rock, an inventor who is going to Europe to sell his high-speed industrial sewing machine. Intense, poetic, and nattily dressed, Lucian takes Gussie to Europe after her romance with Amos Mason fails.