Brendan Archer is both the protagonist and the observer in the novel. As the protagonist, he is attempting to carry off a bride; as the observer, he is attempting just as desperately to understand the mad environment in which both of his prospective brides live. Much of the humor of the novel comes from the collision between the well-bred, war-shocked, proper Major Archer and the irrational characters of Kilnalough, who assume that he understands what is going on and seem to feel no compulsion to explain anything to him.
Without exception, all the characters except Archer are eccentrics. Edward Spencer is a fire-breathing landowner given to sudden enthusiasms, such as experiments in a hotel which is falling down around him. His son Ripon Spencer is a lusty, mindless young man with the manners of a peasant; his young twin daughters find amusement in dressing a boy in their dead sister’s clothes. Sarah Devlin is an unpredictable flirt, whose attitudes toward the men around her change from moment to moment but whose charm enables her to insult them with impunity. The various elderly residents are brilliantly differentiated but all somewhat out of touch with reality. Even two characters who seem to be minor prove to be complex and important: the pale tutor Evans, who exhibits his venomous hatred of the Spencers when he kills the grandmother’s cat and again when he is found by Archer slobbering his loathing of the dancers below him, and the butler Murphy, who exhibits his unsuspected antipathies when he moves through the hotel spreading gasoline over the cats, who think he is their friend, filling the shoes of the ladies he pretended to serve so loyally, and at last joyfully setting afire the place where he worked for so long. If Archer finds it difficult to understand the people of Kilnalough, at least he realizes that he does not really know them. The Anglo-Irish, like most people in a hierarchical society, mistake the pretended loyalty of their subordinates for the real thing. They believe that they know them, while they are being consistently deceived.