The protagonist and narrator of the novel, she has just finished her junior year of college. Esther grew up in the Boston suburbs with her mother and brother. Her father died when she was nine years old. Esther is attractive, talented, and lucky, but uncertainty plagues her, and she feels a disturbing sense of unreality.
Esther’s mother, she has had a difficult life. Mrs. Greenwood lost her husband when her children were still young. Because her husband had inadequate life insurance, she struggles to make a living by teaching typing and shorthand. Practical and traditional, she loves Esther and worries about her future, but cannot understand her.
Esther’s college boyfriend, he is an athletic, intelligent, good-looking man who graduated from Yale and went to medical school. Buddy cares for Esther but has conventional ideas about women’s roles and fails to understand Esther’s interest in poetry. He represents everything that, according to society, Esther should want but does not.
Esther’s psychiatrist at the private mental hospital. Esther comes to trust and love Dr. Nolan, who acts as a kind and understanding surrogate mother. Progressive and unconventional, Dr. Nolan encourages Esther’s unusual thinking.
Esther’s companion in New York, a blond, beautiful southern girl with a sharp tongue. Esther envies Doreen’s nonchalance in social situations, and the two share a witty, cynical perspective on their position as guest editors for a fashion magazine. Doreen represents a rebellion against societal convention that Esther admires but cannot entirely embrace.
Esther’s companion in the mental hospital. A large, horsy woman, Joan was a year ahead of Esther in college, and Esther envied her social and athletic success. Joan once dated Buddy, Esther’s boyfriend. In the mental ward, Esther comes to think of Joan as her double, someone with similar experiences to Esther’s whom Esther does not particularly like, but with whom she feels an affinity.
Esther’s boss at the magazine, an ambitious career woman who encourages Esther to be ambitious. She is physically unattractive, but moves self-confidently in her world. She treats Esther brusquely but kindly.
A pretty, wholesome girl from Kansas who becomes Esther’s friend when they both work at the magazine. Esther feels she is more like Betsy than she is like Doreen, but she cannot relate to Betsy’s cheerfulness and optimism.
A UN simultaneous interpreter who takes Esther on a date. Handsome, thoughtful, and accomplished, he seems sexually uninterested in Esther, who is willing to let him seduce her.
A tall, dark, well-dressed Peruvian who takes Esther on a date to a country club. Marco expresses dashing self-confidence, but also a hatred of women. Violent and sadistic, he believes that all women are sluts.
Esther’s first lover, he is a tall, intelligent, homely math professor at Harvard. Irwin is charming and seductive but not particularly responsible or caring.
Esther’s first psychiatrist, whom she distrusts. He is good-looking and has an attractive family, and Esther thinks him conceited. He does not know how to help Esther, and ends up doing her more harm than good.
A famous, wealthy novelist who gives Esther a scholarship to attend college and pays for Esther’s stay in the private mental hospital. She is elderly, generous, and successful.
A friend of Esther’s mother and the mother of Esther’s sometime-boyfriend, Buddy Willard. Mrs. Willard, who feels protective of her son, has traditional ideas about the roles men and women should play.
Doreen’s love interest, Lenny is a New York DJ and smooth older man. He wears cowboy-style clothes and has a cowboy-style home.
A past acquaintance of Esther’s with whom she had her most open conversation about sex. He is a southern prep school boy who lost his virginity with a prostitute and now associates love with chastity and sex with behaving like an animal.
The Greenwoods’ neighbor, Dodo is a Catholic woman with six children and a seventh on the way. She lives unconventionally, but everyone likes her.
A friend of Esther’s, with whom she is supposed to live while she takes a summer writing course. Jody is friendly and tries to be helpful, but cannot reach Esther.
A friend of Esther’s in the private mental hospital. Valerie has had a lobotomy, and is friendly and relaxed.