Niels Lyhne, a boy whose mother wants him to be a poet. He becomes, like his father, a farmer. He thinks a great deal, finally becoming an atheist who can accept only his own brand of humanism. After the deaths of his wife and baby, he believes life is empty. He finds temporary solace in belonging to a group when he joins the army, but he is fatally wounded in battle and dies a bitter death.
Bartholine Lyhne, Niels’ mother. She loves beauty, especially poetry. She dies while on a trip arranged for her by her son.
Mr. Lyhne, Bartholine’s husband. He disappoints his wife, for although he comes from a family of poets and travelers, he has little insight. He dies while his son is still a student.
Edele Lyhne, Niels’ aunt. She ruins her health by engaging in the social life in Copenhagen and returns to her brother’s farm, where she dies. Niels admires her, and her death makes him melancholy, quieter, and more imaginative.
Erik, Niels’ friend and boyhood chum. He becomes a sculptor and painter, but after his marriage he spends his time drinking and gambling. He is killed when his carriage overturns. His wife has an affair with Niels.
Fru Boyle, a buxom widow, somewhat older than Niels, who becomes his friend. Niels spends his time with her instead of studying.
Fennimore, Niels’ cousin and Erik’s wife. She comes to despise her husband when he proves dissolute and accepts Niels as her lover. When her husband is killed, in her remorse she blames Niels for their affair.
Gerda, a farm girl who becomes Niels’ wife. On her deathbed, she departs from the humanism her husband taught her and asks for a pastor so that she can die a faithful Christian.
Herr Bigum, Niels’ tutor, an insignificant man who fails his examinations for the priesthood and turns to tutoring. He loves Edele Lyhne.