Born to the village headman, Rukmani is spoiled by her social station in the village. When she is twelve and ready to become a bride, she expects a grand wedding like her older sisters enjoyed. However, her family’s circumstances have declined under British rule, and Rukmani is married to Nathan, a landless tenant farmer. When she first sees the mud hut Nathan prepared for her, she compares it in her mind to her father’s fine house and sinks to the ground in fear and despair. Yet instead of ranting or pouting, Rukmani notices Nathan’s pleading expression and reassures him. After this difficult beginning, Rukmani continues to call upon and develop her better nature. She learns the chores of a farmer’s wife and soon improves upon them by growing a superlative vegetable garden. Rukmani is closely associated with the earth and draws spiritual strength from its fertility and beauty. She learns to help other women in childbirth, to adapt to and accept the unpleasant changes the tannery brings to the village, and to withstand seasons of want and hunger. Instead of petulance, Rukmani exhibits tenacious and life-affirming endurance.
Rukmani faces loss after loss over the years, and as her endurance is continuously tested, her capacity for anger intensifies—but her spirit also grows. Kunthi arouses her rage by suggesting several times that Rukmani is sexually involved with Kenny. The first time, Rukmani grabs her and shakes her so furiously her sari drops away. The second time, Rukmani’s wrath so overpowers her that she longs to kill Kunthi. Finally, in a murderous rage, Rukmani attacks and almost kills Ira, mistaking her for Kunthi. After this near disaster, Rukmani finds peace by telling Nathan the truth, forgiving him for his transgressions, and learning to control her anger so she is never again tempted to injure another person. Rather, Rukmani grows in generosity and compassion. She gives up the strictures of caste when her sons go to work in the tannery, and she gives up the tradition of shame when her daughter turns to prostitution. Rukmani forgives her daughter-in-law for failing her duty to help them, and she learns to judge strangers not by their differences but by their deeds and their hearts. Finally, she extends her love and care to Puli, a child even more destitute than she is. By the end of the novel, Rukmani has conquered the hardships of her existence.
Like Rukmani, Nathan identifies with the sustaining and replenishing earth. As a young husband, he thrives on the hope of one day owning land. However, with each passing year, the tannery gains ascendancy over the rural landscape, and his hope diminishes. Nathan is heartbroken when his sons repudiate a farmer’s life and turn to other occupations, yet he refuses to ask any of them to sacrifice their hopes for a better future. Despite bitter times, Nathan is capable of great happiness and joy, and the prospect of a good harvest renews his spirit. He dances joyously with his sons at the Festival of Lights and loves Rukmani passionately. Often he praises her cleverness and calls her the best of wives. Like Rukmani, Nathan is not perfect. His secret infidelity with Kunthi early in his marriage fills him with shame and regret until he confesses to Rukmani and earns her forgiveness. Rukmani describes Nathan as an upright man. He will not eat the food his daughter procures from prostituting herself, nor will he fight like an animal for food at the temple as others do. At his death, the flame atop the temple goes out as his soul is liberated from his suffering body. Like the land he loves, Nathan exemplifies spiritual harmony.
Not only does Kenny cry out against injustice and poverty, he takes what actions he can to fight against them. He questions the status quo and exhorts the suffering to call for help. Sometimes his questions are naïve, such as when he remonstrates with Rukmani for taking dung out of the fields or for nursing her child past the age of weaning. Kenny does not always understand the severe marginality of the impoverished, yet Rukmani admires his gentle ways and tender heart. He brings western medicine to the village and helps both Rukmani and Ira conceive children, their greatest desire. Kenny sacrifices his wife and children to his calling in India and lives a lonely, isolated life. He helps others however he can, securing work in the city for Murugan and training Selvam as his assistant. He raises money by appealing to the humanity of the outside world and is tireless in building a hospital for the village. He is determined, says Rukmani, to find ways and means. In the novel, Kenny stands for hope.
Although Kunthi and Rukmani are neighbors in similar circumstances, Kunthi chooses a very different life path. Where Rukmani remains a faithful wife, Kunthi is unfaithful even as a young bride. She uses her beauty and her seductiveness first to lure Nathan and later to attract the attention of the young tannery workers. For Kunthi, the tannery means a town with excitement and luxuries, whereas for Rukmani, it represents the repudiation of beauty, health, and values. Kunthi transfers her own morality to Rukmani by assuming that Rukmani and Kenny are conducting an illicit affair. At first she merely threatens Rukmani with exposure, but as her conditions becomes more dire, Kunthi extorts food from both Rukmani and Nathan. Her power comes from their fear and is so strong and evil that Rukmani and Nathan risk their family’s starvation to satisfy her. Rukmani and Nathan finally break her power with truth. Truth is the transcendent Hindu value, and Kunthi stands in opposition to it.