Peter Whiffle, a young Ohioan born to wealth and disposed to inactivity and indecision. Planning to be a writer, he goes through many stages. Believing, as a sophisticated young man in Paris, that style and form alone are important, he plans to write a book containing nothing but lists of Things. Later, dressed in rags, he haunts the Bowery in New York and plots a revolution against capitalism. Subject matter is now all-important, and Peter plans a bloody and dirty book, the heroine of which is to be clubfooted, harelipped, and hunchbacked. Later, having run away from his wedding, he lies near death in Africa and has a vision in which angels from hell and heaven wait for him to decide where he wants to go. He is relieved to realize that he need not make a decision, and he recovers. He is now convinced that it is necessary to record all aspects of his characters, but that is also quite a task. At last, after a period in which he experiments with black magic, he returns to Toledo, Ohio. Incurably ill, he says he at last has realized that he was never meant to do anything or to make a decision, but only to appreciate the works of others and to be himself.
Carl Van Vechten
Carl Van Vechten, his friend, who follows the course of his career.
Edith Dale, a woman of wealth and a friend of Peter and Carl.
Mahalah Wiggins, a young woman whom Peter meets at Edith’s house. After much indecision, Peter becomes engaged to Mahalah, but instead of marrying her he leaves for Africa on the day of the wedding, after deciding that marriage is too great a decision for him to make.