Hugh McVey, a Midwestern American whose genius for inventing and manufacturing machinery accounts for his rise from drab poverty to material success. He is, according to many critics, Anderson’s example of the force that produced the problems attendant on the impact of technology upon rural America at the turn of the century.
Steve Hunter, McVey’s partner in business. He is a capable publicist who convinces the town fathers of Bidwell to invest in a plant to manufacture McVey’s invention. The plant makes the town prosperous.
Clara Butterworth, a rather shy, plain, melancholy girl who in a week’s time abandons her studies at the state university, returns to Bidwell, falls in love with McVey, and elopes with him. She is not suited by temperament to a man like McVey, and their marriage becomes a strained relationship. Adversity and the prospect of a child finally bring them together.
Joe Wainsworth, a harness maker who invests his savings in McVey’s invention and is almost financially ruined when the money is lost. The reversal disturbs his disposition, and he becomes sullen and irritable. A trivial incident sets him off and, seriously deranged, he kills his employee, shoots Steve Hunter, and tries to strangle McVey.
Sarah Shepard, McVey’s foster mother, who instills in him respect for knowledge, hard work, social success, and industrial progress.
Henry Shepard, Sarah’s husband and McVey’s first employer. He befriends McVey and provides a home for him.
Jim Gibson, a braggart, Wainsworth’s employee. His boast precipitates Wainsworth’s derangement and its concomitant violence. Gibson becomes Wainsworth’s first victim.
Tom Butterworth, Clara’s father, the richest man in town.
Allie Mulberry, a simple-minded workman who makes a model of McVey’s invention.