Roberta Alden is a young woman from a poor background who goes to work at the Griffiths’ factory in Lycurgus, where she first meets Clyde Griffiths, who is in charge of the department where she works. Clyde likes her straightaway because she is clearly a cut above the other girls who work for him. He is attracted to her charm and intelligence. Up to this point in her life, Roberta has known only disappointment. She was raised on her parents’ farm in Biltz, about fifty miles north of Lycurgus. When she was sixteen she worked in a local dry goods store; at age eighteen she moved to Trippets Mills, to take a better-paying job in a hosiery factory, even though the job was beneath her abilities. She gave most of her money to her family. She moved to Lycurgus when a friend told her of the opportunities there. However, Roberta is lonely there, and is more than happy to start seeing Clyde when they discover that there is a mutual attraction between them. When Roberta becomes pregnant she does not know what to do, and after attempts at getting an abortion fail she begins to insist that Clyde marry her. This begins the chain of events that leads to her death by drowning in Big Bittern Lake.
Titus Alden is Roberta’s father. He is a poor farmer who lives with his wife in a dilapidated house. He has always been poor and does not have the resourcefulness or determination to improve his situation. He simply accepts his life as it presents itself to him; his attitudes and opinions are all derived from others. The Alden family, however, is considered a respectable, God-fearing one.
Alvin Belknap is a defense lawyer in Bridgeburg, New York, who takes on Clyde’s case. Belknap has twice been a state senator and a Democratic assemblyman, and is regarded by the local Democratic Party as a suitable candidate for higher office. A few years earlier, he ran against Orville Mason for district attorney and lost only narrowly. He is now a candidate for the same county judgeship that Mason is aiming for, so the two men are political rivals as well as on opposing sides in the Clyde Griffiths case. Belknap is an able man who with his partner Jephson provides a vigorous defense for Clyde, perhaps as good as could be mounted, given the circumstances. He is more detached and less emotional than Mason. In his youth he faced a situation involving two girls that was not unlike the one Clyde found himself in, so he has a certain sympathy for Clyde.
Hortense Briggs is a pretty but vain and rather vulgar shop girl who lives in Kansas City. She is the first attractive girl Clyde has ever met, and he becomes infatuated with her. She does not treat him well, never fully returning the affection he shows for her. Hortense is a narcissistic personality who manipulates Clyde emotionally and gets him to spend money on her, especially an expensive coat she saw in a store window and took a fancy to.
Burton Burleigh is assistant to Orville Mason, the district attorney. A cunning man, Burleigh is convinced of Clyde’s guilt, and he falsifies evidence, acquiring two strands of Roberta’s hair and threading them between the door and the lens of Clyde’s camera, so “proving” that Clyde hit her with the camera.
Mr. Catchuman is a cold, unemotional lawyer employed by Samuel Griffiths to interview Clyde in the Bridgeburg jail. In a four-hour interview, Clyde does not tell Catchuman the truth, and Catchuman decides that as a murderer, Clyde is a very inept plotter. Catchuman decides to hire Alvin Belknap and his colleague Reuben Jephson to represent Clyde.
Bertine Cranston is a member of the well-off, well-connected group of young people in Lycurgus. Her father owns the Cranston Wickwire Company, and she is a friend of Sondra Finchley. Clyde meets her at the first social engagement he attends at the Griffiths. Bertine thinks Clyde is good-looking, but she loses interest in him when she finds out that he is not rich. She is only interested in young men who are wealthy and have some position in life. She is described as “insincere and sly” (Bk. Two, ch. XXXV, p. 370).
Grant Cranston is a member of the smart set in Lycurgus. Gilbert Griffiths is jealous of him because of his good looks and success with the girls.
Pasquale Cutrone is an Italian who has been sentenced to death for killing his brother. He is the first prisoner to be executed while Clyde is in prison.
Walter Dillard is a young man of about Clyde’s age, and equally ambitious socially. he works in a department store in Lycurgus. Clyde meets him soon after he moves to Lycurgus, and they quickly become friends, but Clyde drops him when he starts to access the Griffiths’ circle. Dillard is described as a “brainless sprig” (Bk. Two, ch. VII, p. 224).
Eddie Doyle is one of the bellhops at the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. He is a good-looking, popular youth, with a gift for getting along with just about anybody.
Sondra Finchley is the beautiful, charming seventeen-year-old member of one of the most wealthy and prominent families in Lycurgus. When Clyde meets her he immediately becomes infatuated with her, thinking her “smart and vain and sweet . . . so different to any he had ever known and so superior” (Bk. Two, ch. X, p. 251). Sondra is an intelligent, socially accomplished girl who excels at sports such as riding, tennis, swimming, and taking a moor-boat out on the lake and aqua-planing. Sondra finds Clyde attractive and charming, but at first she does not take him seriously because he has no money. She gets to know him only to spite his cousin, Gilbert, whom she does not like. But gradually Sondra warms to Clyde. he supplies her with the adoration she longs for, and they become emotionally involved with each other. They even talk about marriage. Clyde never tells her of Roberta, and after he is arrested, he never sees Sondra again, although she does send him a typed, unsigned note when he is in prison, telling him that she has not entirely forgotten him.
Dr. Glenn is a small-town doctor in practice near Gloversville. Roberta goes to see him to request an abortion. But Dr. Glenn, who is fifty-eight and described as “solemn, cautious, moral, semi-religious” (Bk. Two, ch. XXXVII, p. 458), refuses to help her, even though his manner is sympathetic.
Asa Griffiths is Clyde Griffith’s father. He is a preacher who has never been formally ordained. He and his wife run a mission, and go out onto the streets to preach, taking their son and daughter with them. Before moving to Kansas City, Asa and his wife had preached in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Asa is an impractical man and is always poor, but this does not stop him constantly speaking of how well God cares for him. He manages to remain cheerful most of the time, but it is his wife who is the stronger, more resilient character.
Clyde Griffiths is the protagonist of the story, which follows his life from the age of twelve until his execution at about the age of twenty-three. His story begins in Kansas City, where his religious parents force him to accompany them on the streets of the city, where they preach to passers-by. Clyde has no interest in this and resents being compelled to take part. Because of the impracticality of his parents Clyde is raised in poverty, and from an early age he wants something more than he has been given in life. He is envious of those who have more than he does and wonders why they should be favored and not he. He is fascinated by wealth and what a person might do with it. He also aspires well beyond the social station he is born into. He wants to elevate himself in every way, as far as wealth and social position are concerned. This is the dominating passion of his life. He thinks that the rich must live wonderful lives, and he yearns to become one of them. The problem is that his parents have not provided for his education, and he has no training in any occupation or profession. He becomes a bellhop at a prestigious hotel, but is forced to leave Kansas City to avoid being apprehended by the police following a reckless car ride in which he was a passenger. When he meets Samuel Griffiths, his wealthy uncle, he persuades him to give him a chance in Griffiths’ factory in Lycurgus, New York. After moving to Lycurgus, Clyde gradually makes some progress up the social ladder. He has been blessed with a quick intelligence, and he is good-looking and possesses charm, so he is eventually accepted in the smart set of wealthy young people in Lycurgus. But this proves his undoing. He becomes infatuated with Sondra Finchley and is obsessed with the idea of marrying into her wealthy family. But to do this he needs to get rid of Roberta Alden, the factory girl whom he has made pregnant. The decision he makes to kill Roberta shows the extent to which his moral sense is overcome by his desperate desire to achieve the American Dream, even though he does not have the education, skills, or drive to achieve it on his own merits. Clyde is presented throughout as someone who is continually reacting against the deprivations he suffered as a child, but he never acquires the maturity or self-knowledge necessary to make genuine progress in life. He dreams and he plots his advancement, but he has no sense of how such things might genuinely be accomplished.
Elvira Griffiths is Asa’s wife and Clyde’s father. She is a deeply religious woman who tries to live according to her religious principles. She believes she has been called to preach the gospel. She is stronger than her husband but has no more practical insight into how the world works. Because of this religious narrow-mindedness she has no idea about how to raise Clyde to be successful and happy. When first Esta and later Clyde get into serious trouble, Elvira does everything she can to help them, all the time praying and calling on God for assistance.
Esta Griffiths is Clyde’s older sister. She is described as a “sensuous, weak girl who did not by any means know yet what she thought.” She just accepts the religion of her parents without any deep understanding of it, and it fails to meet her emotional needs. She runs away with an actor who dumps her when she becomes pregnant. She returns to Kansas City and has the child, managing to survive with the help of her mother.
Julia Griffiths is Clyde’s younger sister. She is nine years old when the story begins. She plays only a small role in the early chapters.
Bella Griffiths is Clyde’s cousin from the Lycurgus branch of the Griffiths’ family. With her thick brown hair, she is far more attractive and graceful than her older sister Bella, and the family is not expecting any difficulty in marrying her off when the time comes.
Gilbert Griffiths is Clyde’s cousin from the Lycurgus branch of the Griffiths’ family. Educated at Princeton University, he occupies a senior position in his father’s company, which he will eventually control and own. He is a man who recognizes only business and financial success as valid things to aim for in life, and he can scarcely disguise his contempt for his penniless cousin Clyde, whom he treats with condescension and disdain. Gilbert is also an insecure man. He is jealous of any success Clyde might have that could possibly threaten his own position, and he does not like to hear that Clyde is considered good-looking. Gilbert does not take part in the social activities that occupy so much of his sisters’ time.
Myra Griffiths is Clyde’s cousin from the Lycurgus branch of the Griffiths’ family. Older than her sister Bella, she is a graduate of Smith College, but she is not considered good-looking and remains unmarried. She is generally considered too thoughtful and serious. She amuses herself reading and performing music, but is sad about how other opportunities in life seem to be passing her by.
Samuel Griffiths is Clyde’s wealthy uncle, the head of the Griffiths family in Lycurgus. He owns the Griffiths Collar and Shirt Company and is one of the principal employers in the town. Unlike his n’er-do-well brother, whom he has not seen for thirty years, Samuel is a practical, efficient man of sound judgment who tends to be a little impatient with those of lesser abilities. When he meets Clyde in Chicago he is willing to give him a chance, but he offers him no special favors just because Clyde is his nephew. However, his sense of decency and propriety means that eventually he invites Clyde to dinner with the family, and this helps Clyde to build his own social life with the wealthy set. When Clyde is arrested for murder, Griffiths hires a local lawyer to defend him but says that if Clyde is guilty he does not want any effort made to save him. He worries about the effects of the case on the reputation of his own family.
Oscar Hegglund is one of the bell-hops at the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. He is a genial young man, older and more experienced than the other bell-hops, who befriends Clyde and shows him the ropes at his new job.
Fred Heit is the coroner in Cataraqui County. He conducts the autopsy on Roberta Alden. Heit is a friend of Orville Mason and he immediately realizes that the case will help Mason’s political career.
Reuben Jephson is a defense lawyer, the partner of Alvin Belknap. Together they take on Clyde’s case. Jephson is young, practical, and shrewd, and it is he who sees that the story Clyde tells will not convince the jury, and he makes up a story that he hopes sounds more plausible, and gets Clyde to learn it and regurgitate it on the witness stand. Clyde is impressed by Jephson and has confidence in him.
Mr. Kemerer is a mid-level manager at the Griffiths’ collar factory. He reports to Mr. Whiggam, to whom he is excessively deferential. He also expresses some deference to Clyde, because Clyde is a nephew of the factory owner.
Kinsella is one of the bellhops at the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. He is good-looking but rather dull, although he excels at gambling.
Nicholas Kraut is the deputy sheriff of Cataraqui County who arrests Clyde.
Grace Marr is a friend of Roberta’s in Lycurgus, but they fall out after Grace catches Roberta in a lie about her secret meetings with Clyde.
Orville W. Mason
Orville W. Mason is the district attorney in Cataraqui County, New York, who prosecutes the case against Clyde. Mason grew up in poverty, which gave him a bias against those who have had an easier time in life. When he was fourteen he broke his nose in an accident which left his face disfigured. This meant that he had no success with girls, a fact which left a deep and painful impression on him, although he did marry later and have children. Mason is a forceful, emotional man who is firmly convinced of Clyde’s guilt and browbeats him on the witness stand, cunningly using Roberta’s letters to get an emotional reaction from the jury. Mason has good reason to put in a star performance as prosecutor. He wants to get elected to a judgeship in the fall, and the fact that he emerges from the trial as a hero helps him to achieve his ambition.
Rev. Duncan Macmillan
Rev. Duncan Macmillan is the minister who visits Clyde in prison. He is a young man who greatly impresses Clyde’s mother, who regards him as “so spiritual and so kindly” (Bk. Three, ch. XXXI, p. 891. Macmillan, who is the minister for an independent, non-sectarian church in Syracuse, does not believe in the death penalty, and he tries to maintain an open mind about Clyde’s guilt or innocence. He manages to win Clyde’s confidence, and Clyde gives him a more honest account of what really happened than he has given either to his lawyers or his mother. Acting as Clyde’s spiritual adviser, Macmillan tries to convince him that he can know the peace of God. Eventually, Macmillan is forced to the conclusion that Clyde is guilty of murder, but this does not stop him from continuing to provide spiritual counsel. He accompanies Clyde to the death chamber and is a witness to his execution.
Greta Miller is a friend of Hortense Briggs. She expresses some interest in Clyde when she first meets him, but Clyde prefers Hortense, who is herself anxious not to let her friend and rival steal Clyde away.
Miller Nicholson is a lawyer from Buffalo, New York, who has been sentenced to death for killing a client. He is a courteous and polite man whom Clyde meets when they are both in prison. Nicholson advises Clyde about what books he should read and also gives him advice about what legal strategy to pursue in his appeal. He goes to his death calmly, unlike many of the other prisoners.
Ratterer is one of the bellhops at the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. He and Clyde take to each other immediately and become friends. Ratterer is a genial fellow and everyone likes him. He lives with his mother and sister, and has been working at odd jobs in Kansas City since he was fourteen.
Louise Ratterer is Ratterer’s sister. She is a pretty girl who works in a dry-goods store.
Orrin Short is a young man who works in a men’s department store in Lycurgus. He and Clyde are acquaintances, and Clyde, finding Orrin courteous and tactful, consults him about the problem of Roberta’s pregnancy (while pretending that he is talking about someone else). Short recommends Dr. Glen as someone who might be able to help.
Mr. Smillie is the personal representative of Samuel Griffiths, who is sent to visit Clyde Griffiths in jail at Bridgeport in order to assess the possibilities for his defense. After a two-hour visit, Smillie comes away convinced of Clyde’s guilt.
Willard Sparser is a friend of Hegglund who works as a chauffeur for a wealthy man in Kansas City. He borrows his employer’s car and takes Hegglund, Clyde, and a few others for a jaunt outside Kansas City. On their return, the boys in the car urge him to drive faster. This results in the serious accident that forces Clyde to flee Kansas City.
Mr. Squires is the captain of the bellhops at the Green-Davidson Hotel. It is he who hires Clyde.
Gertrude Trumbell is one of the smart young people in the Lycurgus social scene. She is friendly to Clyde when they first meet at a dinner dance held at the Trumbells’ home. Gertrude is a rather cynical girl who harbors some resentment of her friend Sondra Finchley because Sondra is better looking than she.
Jill Trumbell is Gertrude Trumbell’s sister, a blond, socially assured girl who at dinner asks Clyde a lot of questions about himself.
Governor David Waltham
Governor Waltham is the governor of New York. In spite of the urgings of the Rev. Macmillan and Mrs. Griffiths, he refuses to use his executive powers to commute Clyde’s sentence to life imprisonment.
Joshua Whiggam is a senior executive at the Griffiths’ collar factory. He is a nervous-looking man who is excessively deferential to Gilbert Griffiths, his superior in the company.