George Webber, a young writer in the first flush of success as a novelist. He learns that success brings enemies and that success is sometimes empty of meaning. His great aim in life, idealist that he is, is to write the truth, to portray people as they are, the great and small, the rich and poor. He faces disillusionment at every turn. He finds that his fellow men are greedy after the world’s goods; he finds, too, that they do not relish his truthful portrayal of them. George visits Germany, a place he loves, only to find that country filled with fear and persecution in the 1930’s, during the Nazi regime. He returns home to the United States to preach, in new novels, against selfishness and greed, hoping he can awaken the people of his own land to arise and defeat the forces threatening the freedom of humankind.
Foxhall Edwards, an editor for a publishing house who becomes George Webber’s friend and trusted adviser for a time. He is a genius at encouraging young writers to find themselves and acquire the confidence they need to produce literary art. He is also a skeptical person who believes that if humans are not destined for freedom, they must accept this fact. Edwards’ fatalism is at odds with George’s idealistic desire to better the lot of humankind by working to change conditions. These divergent attitudes cause a break in the friendship between the two men.
Lloyd McHarg, a successful American novelist who has won worldwide fame based on a number of excellent novels. He has found fame to be empty and searches for something; he knows not what. McHarg’s disillusionment is a bitter lesson for young, idealistic George Webber, for whom McHarg has been a symbol of greatness as a man of letters.
Esther Jack, an older woman who has been George’s mistress in the past and becomes so again for a time after he has achieved success. He leaves her a second time when he decides that to find himself, he must leave Esther’s sophisticated set and get to know the common people of the world.
Else von Kohler
Else von Kohler, a beautiful, intelligent young German woman with whom George has a tender romance while revisiting Germany during the 1930’s.