George Webber, a lonely child reared by a family-proud aunt and uncle in the small city of Libya Hill, North Carolina. His childhood is the bleak existence of a youngster taken up by charity. As a youth, he is an omnivorous, voracious reader who yearns to acquire the power of writing great novels, hoping someday to write about the two-sided world he knows, that of the rich and the poor. After attending college, George moves to New York City, only to find that he is as lonely among the big city’s millions of people as he was in a small town. Even a trip to Europe gives him no satisfaction, for he is a silent, brooding, and distrustful man. His salvation, ultimately, is a love affair lasting several years, an experience that brings him out of himself. His mistress helps him lose his childish illusions about fame and greatness. His self-knowledge becomes complete when, during a trip to Europe, he awakens in a hospital after a sordid brawl to recognize that life is knowing one’s self completely.
Mrs. Esther Jack
Mrs. Esther Jack, a successful, well-known designer of stage sets in New York City. She meets George Webber aboard ship, falls in love with him, and becomes his mistress and counselor for several years, although she is fifteen or twenty years older than her lover. She takes George to meet many well-known people and helps him to realize that life is more than mere fame. She encourages George to write, and with her help his long-sought novel begins to take shape. She dominates George so much, however, that he is forced to leave her, lest her very goodness and love become his undoing as a writer.
Mr. and Mrs. Joyner
Mr. and Mrs. Joyner, George’s uncle and aunt, who rear him after his mother’s death. They are proud of their family and try to turn the boy against his father.
Mr. Webber, George’s father, who deserts his wife and child to run off with another woman. Despite his father’s behavior, George loves and admires the man. Mr. Webber’s death brings George a small inheritance that enables him to attend college and to travel to Europe.