Jane Clifford is extraordinary in her belief in the importance of words and the reality of the inner life. The most appealing quality Godwin has given her thirty-two-year-old protagonist is her sincere desire to make of her life what Aristotle calls “a good plot”: something that moves from possibility to probability to necessity. Toward this end, Jane reevaluates the symbols in her life—Edith Barnstorff, Kitty Sparks, and Gerda Mulvaney—and realizes that their stories cannot be hers, that “you had to write yourself as you went along, that your story could not and should not possibly be completed until you were.” What Godwin’s readers are likely to admire in Jane is her continued search for order and meaning in her life, and her awareness that she may never find them.
Godwin reflects other characters in the novel through Jane’s consciousness. Edith, Kitty, Gerda, and Jane’s lover, Gabriel Weeks, are presented almost entirely through Jane’s flashbacks and recollections. In Jane’s mind, her grandmother Edith is “the perfect Southern lady.” The story of her marriage to Hans Barnstorff (who, hearing Edith declare that “life is a disease,” said “let me protect you from it”) affects Jane deeply, and her death leaves Jane to pursue the “truth of the individual life” alone. Jane also sees herself as separated from her mother, Kitty, a part-time classics teacher and full-time wife to Ray Sparks, and Gerda Mulvaney, a friend passionately involved in her latest cause. Both women seem to possess what has eluded Jane—“a real vocation,” something she believes “we are all in search of.”
Jane’s lover, Gabriel Weeks, is the least defined of Godwin’s characters, and he is also the one with whom Jane is struggling the most. A middle-aged man with no lines in his face, Gabriel is less angelic than ethereal. Married to Ann Weeks for the past twenty-five years, Gabriel occupies much of Jane’s inner, but little of her external, life. He has never told her that he loves her and remains equally noncommittal in his plans for their future. Gabriel believes that perfect art but not permanent relationships can exist because “a relationship, by its very nature, is transient . . . it is made between people, and people change.” Gabriel is located in the moment; he is incapable of transcending time through love.