Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Jasper Milvain: A a young man without much money but determinedly ambitious from the start, Jasper arrives in London with the hopes of building a successful literary career. His two talented sisters follow him there. Jasper is a portrait of what it takes to get ahead in the world of New Grub Street: he is willing to write to the popular taste. He also abandons the woman he really loves when her inheritance is reduced and a better option presents itself in the form of the widowed Amy Reardon. Jasper can entertain lavishly with Amy's money and becomes a journal editor. Interestingly, Jasper is not a villain. He is pleasant and friendly to his more idealistic friends. He simply sees the foolishness of their ways to one who wants material prosperity. Yet watching Jasper succeed leaves the reader feeling hollow.
Edwin Reardon: Reardon is a sharp contrast to Jasper. He starts off with great promise as a novelist and wants with all his heart to succeed, but his novels increasingly fail to sell well, putting him in a desperate situation. He has to contend too with a wife who married him thinking he would be a success and who is more and more baffled and unhappy that he simply can't grind out novels like a machine. Edwin eventually dies of poverty, depression, and despair.
Amy Reardon: Edwin's beautiful and ambitious wife cares less about her husband as a person than his success in the world. Rather than stand by him, she deserts him in his moment of need, moving back home with her mother.
Marian Yule: Jasper loves this pure, talented, hard-working woman and friend of his sisters. She, sadly, sacrifices herself to the needs of her aging father, who is not very talented and falling behind in the ruthless world of journalism. She tolerates his rages and works as his secretary. When she is left only a third of an expected inheritance, Jasper coldly deserts hers.
Mrs.Yule: Alfred Yule, Marian's father, makes the mistake of marrying a lower class woman. This means he can't take her around to social events. She is a good, kind woman, a fine homemaker dedicated to her daughter and husband. Nevertheless, Alfred blames her for his career failure and often verbally abuses her out of his own sense of inadequacy.
Harold Biffen: Biffen is the picture of the idealistic writer, devoted to his craft, in love with all things Greek, and determined to write the novel within him, regardless of its commercial success. We almost always see him cold, half starved, living on the margins. Once he has written his novel, he kills himself, knowing there is no place for him in this new world.
Dora and Maud Milvain: Jasper's sisters are a portrait of women coming to London to find work in journalism as opportunities for women emerged in the late Victorian period. Both end up married, but Jasper is able to condescendingly funnel them work he thinks fitting for women, and Dora has success as a children's writer.