The protagonist of the novel. Morris Bober runs the grocery that is central to the novel and is the character who represents the heart of the novel. Morris is an honest, thoughtful compassionate man who serves other people even though the world constantly delivers bad luck to him. His character is held up as the model of morality and it is what Frank Alpine attempts to emulate. In a community characterized by social and economic troubles, Morris stands as a bedrock of moral support. His store provides the milk and bread that nourishes the community, just as his ethics help to treat all people in a humane manner.
The wife of Morris Bober and the mother of Helen Bober. Ida is a slightly worrisome older Jewish woman, but she is a good person who appears to have a good soul. Ida worries most about Frank Alpine, a gentile, becoming involved with her daughter. Her bias toward her ethnicity is such that she weeps upon finding out that Helen actually kissed Frank. Still, although Ida views Frank suspiciously throughout the novel, she is not unkind to him. Like Morris, she does not consider Frank a bad man for taking milk and bread because he was starving. Additionally, although she would like him to leave, she also pays him more money because she feels that it is only fair given their increased profits. While Helen worries, she has a gentle character that is without malice. Her constant Yiddish style of debating and arguing with her husband provides a light comic touch to the novel.
The daughter of Ida and Morris Bober. Helen bears a classical name and in many ways appears to be a classical character. She lacks the Yiddish dialect of her parents and speaks in educated English. She longs to read and become a great scholar and learn the classics, but her limited access to college makes her very frustrated. For this reason, Helen becomes a dreamer who does not always perceive people and situations correctly. For example, she initially fails to perceive that Nat Pearl is not seriously interested in her, which later crushes her after she has sex with him. Next, she places her own perceptions of Frank upon him, thereby not entirely reading his character correctly. Helen undergoes a character development of her own that mirrors Frank's in some ways, making her a more realized creature at the end of the novel.
The stranger who appears in the Bobers' neighborhood and eventually takes over their grocery. Frank Alpine's struggle to control his self and his character is the driving conflict of the novel. Frank is torn between his tendency to do bad and his desire to do good. He idolizes Saint Francis of Assisi as a model of good, yet even while he fantasizes of being like the Saint he continues to steal from the grocery. Frank initially appears to be the assistant to Morris's techniques of running the grocery, but in truth becomes an assistant to his way of life. By the end of the novel, Frank will have fully come to embrace Morris's ethical system.
The liquor storeowner down the street from the Bobers. Julius Karp is a Yiddish- speaking immigrant to Brooklyn like Morris Bober, but Karp is a far less compassionate character. Financial considerations almost always influence Karp's actions. Karp leases the tailor shop to a grocer, even though he realizes that the move will possibly ruin Morris Bober's business. Karp wants his son to marry Helen Bober, but only does so because he wants to expand his economic empire to include Morris's store. Karp is the most prosperous merchant on the block, but he is too cheap to buy a telephone and always uses Morris. Karp likes to be around Morris and likes Morris to like him, but Karp has little moral conscience of his own. Karp is an immigrant who managed to have initial success in America, but who does nothing to support his fellow immigrants around him.
The lazy son of Julius Karp. Louis never has achieved anything on his own and makes his living running his father's store. Louis has no ambition for anything greater in life. Even as an employee in his father's store, Louis steals from his father. When Julius Karp has a heart attack at the end of the novel, Louis decides that the liquor store will be closed because he is too lazy to take care of it while his father recovers. Louis's actions stand in sharp contrast to those of Frank Alpine, who effectively is the foster son of Morris Bober and who works diligently to keep the store running.
The son of Detective Minogue and the true bad person in the novel. In the pairing of sons and fathers, Ward Minogue represents the wicked son. Although his father is a detective, Ward Minogue has long violated the law. His father takes Ward's failings as a son and a human seriously, beating him, and ejecting him from his household. Although the seriousness of Ward's father might seem slightly harsh and although Ward is a character who suffers, mostly from Diabetes toward the end of the book, he is not a very sympathetic person. He is racist and cruel. He tries to violently rape Helen and he hits Morris Bober out of spite and complete malice. Ward Minogue is an evildoer, with no redeeming qualities.
The father of Ward Minogue and the detective who investigates the crimes on the Bobers' block. Detective Minogue is portrayed as a sympathetic character, who treats the Bobers kindly and genuinely tries to help them with no discrimination. Detective Minogue is a strict father, but his desire to maintain the law seems appropriate. Although Detective Minogue beats his son after his son robs Karp's liquor store, if he did not, his son would be put in jail. Detective Minogue's troubled relationship with his son testifies to the theme of father-son relationships that Malamud explores in the novel.
Represents the most socially and educationally successful son in the novel. Nat Pearl has managed to become a college graduate and a law student as a first generation American, something that none of the other immigrant children have done. Despite his achievements, Nat is not a kind and compassionate man. Although he will study the law, he treats Helen without true fairness by using her for sexual favors, although he will not marry her due to her poverty. Nat, like Julius Karp, is another person who acts out of self-interest with little care and attention to the needs of others.
Nat's sister and Sam and Goldie Pearl's daughter. Betsy is a minor character who serves as Helen's one friend. Compared to Helen, Betsy is unintelligent and uninteresting, but there is no evidence that she is unkind.
The seller of paper bags who frequently visits the Bobers' grocery store. Al Marcus represents life and the unwillingness to suffer and yield in the face of difficult circumstances. Although he has a terminal form of cancer, he keeps working diligently as a paper bag salesman, not willing to simply give up and die. Because of his attitude, he is able to live much longer than the doctors believe that he shall. Frank thinks that Marcus represents suffering, but actually Marcus represents the desire for life and living that people in difficult circumstances manages to embody.
The seller of light bulbs. Breitbart rarely speaks in the book, but he too is a man who persists in the face of difficult times. Although Breitbart's partner defrauded him and ran away with his wife, Breitbart goes on. He does not seem happy and he suffers, but his life continues. Through his struggle, he embodies the possibilities of life. His sale of light bulbs carries a metaphorical connotation in that he is giving people the instruments that will light up their lives, symbolically suggesting the possibility that he is giving them the tools that will allow them to illuminate themselves.
Nat and Betsy's parents who own the candy store on the block. They are relatively successful and Sam manages to make money betting on the horses. Little is known about them, but they help demonstrate the ways that immigrants in America have struggled.
They rent the upstairs apartment from Morris Bober. Little is known about them. Nick and Tessie are Italian and poor immigrants. Their presence helps to show the diversity of the neighborhood and the way that people of all different ethnic backgrounds struggle in the city after they first arrive.
Morris and Ida Bober's deceased son. Ephraim died of an ear infection at an age that is not specified. Little is known about Ephraim's personality, but his death has created a void in Morris Bober's life that creates much of his sadness. The fact that Morris Bober has been left without a son is important in the plot, however, because Frank Alpine is able to fill the space that Ephraim one held and become a foster child.
German owner of the grocery store across the street. Schmitz never acts in the novel, but is a subtle presence because the presence of his store negatively affects the Bobers' store. Schmitz's German ethnicity is noteworthy because of the persecuting role that German's played on the Jews during the Holocaust. On an allegorical level, the way that Schmitz pushes Morris out of business and into deeper poverty can be compared to the way that Germans made Jews suffer in Europe.