John Wickliff Shawnessy
John Wickliff Shawnessy, a schoolteacher and the philosopher of Raintree County. On July 4, 1892, he looks back over his life, recalling his boyhood, his youthful loves, his two marriages, his part in the Civil War. He tries to draw out the meaning of his life, his America, from what he remembers. The day ends for him tragicomically, as he is first accused and then exonerated of committing adultery with a local widow.
Senator Garwood B. Jones
Senator Garwood B. Jones, John’s old friend, who makes a speech at the July Fourth celebration after John introduces him. He is a shrewd, smooth-tongued man without principles.
The Reverend Mr. Shawnessy
The Reverend Mr. Shawnessy, John’s father, a doctor, a preacher, and a teetotaler.
Mrs. Shawnessy, John’s mother, a gentlewoman whom he greatly loves.
Nell Gaither, John’s first sweetheart, a combination of hoyden and lady. She becomes the wife of Jones after John is reported dead in the Civil War. She dies in childbirth while still a young woman.
Jerusalem Webster Stiles
Jerusalem Webster Stiles, the “Perfessor,” a cynic and a friend of John. He establishes an academy where he teaches his charges little of the classics, much about seduction. Forced out of town because of attempted adultery, he later becomes a newspaperman in New York. It is he who proves years later that John is not guilty of adultery as charged.
Susanna Drake, John’s first wife, a girl of wealth from New Orleans. She is a passionate, emotional creature who becomes demented and burns their house, killing their child. John finds that she is haunted by the fact that her mother was black. Sent back to be cared for by her relatives, she later escapes and disappears.
Esther Root, John’s second wife, one of his former pupils. She and her husband elope, returning to the community to rear their family and win a respected place.
Mr. Root, Esther’s father. He opposes his daughter’s marriage to John on the grounds that the man is an atheist and also a bigamist, since there is no proof that his first wife is truly dead.